Gov. Nikki Haley and state law enforcement agencies can be sued by Occupy Columbia protestors who were arrested in 2011 after living for a month on the S.C. State House grounds, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
Haley and the chiefs of the state Bureau of Public Safety and state Department of Public Safety had asked the court to protect them from civil legal penalties, saying they only were carrying out their duties.
While Monday’s ruling centered on whether state officials were immune from the lawsuit, the Fourth Circuit of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said the Occupy protestors have “a viable claim” that the state violated their 1st Amendment rights.
The state did not have rules banning anyone from living on State House grounds when Haley ordered the Occupy Columbia protestors removed by 6 p.m. on Nov. 16, 2011, the court ruled.
Police arrested 19 protestors that night. Those charges later were dropped.
“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, ... at the time of Occupy Columbia’s arrest, no such restrictions existed,” the court wrote.
“We hold that the Occupy Columbia protesters have stated a viable claim that Appellants violated their First Amendment rights to assemble and protest peacefully on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in the absence of a valid time, place, or manner regulation.”
As a result, Haley and the state authorities remain defendants in the lawsuit brought by Occupy protestors, the court said.
The protestors want compensation for having their rights violated by their arrests.
The state could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments about granting government officials immunity from the lawsuit, or the case could head back to a federal court in South Carolina, where the sides will tussle over the protestors’ original allegations about their arrests.
“There are still several steps to go in order to resolve this matter in the courts,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.
At the time, Haley ordered the protestors removed, saying they were littering the grounds and using bushes for bathrooms. The protestors denied the accusations.
Occupy Columbia launched its protest at the State House grounds Oct. 15, 2011, part of a nationwide series of demonstrations against economic inequality. Protesters set up tents, organized safety and medical committees and rented a portable toilet, some staying at the site nearly around the clock.
A month later, in an effort to roust the protesters, Haley said that anyone attempting to camp out on the State House grounds after 6 p.m. would be arrested for trespassing. Haley said the protesters were free to return during daylight hours.
The arrests came after the state Christmas tree was delivered in preparation for the annual Carolighting ceremony, scheduled for a couple of weeks later.
“We continue to stand behind the decision made two years ago – and which is still the rule today – that the State House grounds are not meant to be used as a public toilet or campground,” Mayer said.
Since the arrests, South Carolina has enacted laws prohibiting staying overnight on the State House grounds.
Drew Radeker, a lead attorney for the Occupy protesters, said in an email that his clients were pleased with the court’s decision and that they had been targeted because of their beliefs.
“We have always maintained that the reason for our clients’ arrest was an unlawful order that singled these protesters out for punishment because a politician did not like them protesting at the State House,” Radeker wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.