Saturday, January 28, 2012

Did Occupy Charlottesville Protesters actually Trespass in Lee Park

I attended the trial of seventeen Occupy Charlottesville members for trespassing in Lee Park immediately after the city terminated the permit granted to Occupy Charlottesville movement to use the park. I believe the city would have done a great community service to have dropped the charges against the occupiers. The city was being pressured to end the occupation by local residents who were concerned about local issues while the occupiers were addressing national and global issues. The city of Charlottesville clearly made permit decisions in a highly politicized environment. By dropping all charges, the city would have achieved their goal of returning the park to normal use, while recognizing that the city is not opposed to use of public spaces in peaceful protest of national and global issues. Council recently made its own statement opposing involvement by the United States in possible war with Iran. 
Both Maurice Jones, Charlottesville City Manager, and Brian Daly, Director of Parks and Recreation were called as witnesses in the case regarding the issuing of permits for the occupation. Their testimony illustrated how much politics - rather than established policy - influenced the issuing of a series of permits for use of Lee Park. Although I am not an expert on case law relating to free speech issues, it appeared to me that actions by the city may have not been in keeping with the protections of free speech relevant to this trespassing case. I applaud the occupiers for their civil disobedience and willingness to stipulate that they in fact trespassed in Lee Park to raise the issue of their right to protest peacefully in the park and that the city's action to arrest and remove the occupiers may have not have been within established free speech guidelines.
Perhaps the trade-off between having Jones' and Daly's testimony in court showing that the city was not clearly prepared to handle this free speech issue in a well established manner in return for achieving conviction of the 17 occupiers for trespassing (a warning to future protesters, perhaps) was in the City's interest, but I believe the city didn't look good at the end of the trial. I was surprised that the occupiers were fined given the testimony. 
The defense attorney stipulated that all seventeen occupiers were in the park after the curfew and after termination of the permit. Thus the prosecution did not have to establish that trespassing actually occurred and the case was decided for all 17 defendants in about two hours from beginning to end. I believe that the city's action were not clearly appropriate within the free speech guidelines presented by the defense attorney and actually expected that the judge would find the defendants guilty of trespass, but not fine them (other than court costs). I suppose part of civil disobedience is to violate a law and accept the punishment, but I don't believe that the city's actions clearly showed that the permits were properly issued and withdrawn and in my mind it was not clear if in fact the defendants were trespassing. Perhaps the judge having already fined one other defendant $100 who plead guilty in a prior action resulted in the same fine being imposed - to have a consistent penalty. Without the prior case decision (where actions by the City were not considered due to the guilty plea) a lower or zero dollar fine might have well have been appropriate. The inconsistent and politically influenced actions by city officials presented by the defense was a bit embarrassing to the city administrtion. I do hope the city learns from this experience. This trial was a good learning opportunity for the city and the public in some of the finer points of free speech guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Dropping all charges might well have been an action the city could have taken that would have achieved their goal of returning the park to normal use with significantly less cost and embarrassment to the city.

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