Monday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley received some unfortunate news. Just three months after declaring her love for the Constitution by way of instituting a “Constitution week” for South Carolina, a federal appeals court ruled that she and her office could be sued for the violation of First Amendment rights, as a result of her orders to arrest Occupy Columbia protesters in 2011.
The protesters, who had camped out on the South Carolina statehouse grounds in solidarity with those in Zucotti Park and other Occupy protest sites throughout the country, had rallied in support of the 99% and Occupy movements. The camp and demonstration had lasted a month before Governor Haley ordered the bureau of protective services to remove the protesters, resulting in the arrest of 19.
The move sparked an immediate outcry from civil rights advocates who pointed out that as there were no standing regulations regarding the use of the grounds for protests or political actions, Haley’s move to have the Occupy protesters forcibly evicted and arrested amounted to a gross and obvious violation of their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and expression.
In the court’s ruling Monday, Circuit Judge Stephanie D. Thacker wrote,
It is not disputed that South Carolina and its state officials could have restricted the time when the State House grounds are open to the public with a valid time, place, and manner restriction. However, as explained above, at the time of Occupy Columbia’s arrest, no such restrictions existed.
The lawsuit against Governor Haley was filed a week after the initial eviction and arrests, during which time another court ruling was issued allowing the protesters to return to the grounds to resume their occupation and protests. Haley, who had sought to claim that the camp and demonstration were damaging public property, had her reasoning called into question by attorneys representing the arrested demonstrators, who stated in court filings that despite her assertion that such was in the interest of protecting the property itself, the core motivation behind her orders to evict and arrest the protesters was more politically motivated, stating,
The reason why the Occupy protests are so controversial and uncomfortable for governmental officials to endure is that it is the most persuasive form of peaceful, nonviolent protest. What Governor Haley objects to is Plaintiffs’ message and she would not have evicted Plaintiffs if she were aligned with Plaintiffs.
Watch a WLTX 19 report on the arrests below: