South Carolina protesters allowed to camp overnight: judge

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 14, 2011 8:43 PM
South Carolina protesters allowed to camp overnight: judge

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that anti-Wall Street protesters may camp overnight indefinitely on the South Carolina capitol building grounds in Columbia under their First Amendment right to free speech.

Nineteen Occupy Columbia protesters were arrested last month after failing to abide by the 6 p.m. curfew instituted by Republican Governor Nikki Haley. Seven of those arrested sued the governor and other officials, asking for a court to stop interference with their 24-hour occupation with sleeping bags and tents.

In an order on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie blocked any further arrests of Occupy Columbia protesters. The judge ruled that camping and sleeping, while not traditional free speech, were "symbolic conduct."

She also said there was no law or regulation in South Carolina to disallow the protesters' presence outside the capitol building, but that the state could pursue such rules if desired.

Between 15 and 40 people have been sleeping on the State House grounds for 61 days, said Robert Butcher, an attorney for the protesters.

"They're there to occupy the State House grounds just as this corporate influence occupies the inside of our State House through money, lobbyists and corporate gifts," Butcher said. "It's a great day in South Carolina for the First Amendment."

Eugene Matthews, an attorney representing several state officials in the lawsuit, said he could not comment on whether the state plans to appeal the decision.

"We respect the judge saying that we need to clarify our rules, but the governor has been clear that she does not believe anyone should be able to turn the State House into an unsanitary campground," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said when asked about an appeal.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)