PORTLAND, Maine — OccupyMaine members followed through with their promise to take their case to court Monday, filing a lawsuit against the city of Portland to argue their eviction from Lincoln Park would be unconstitutional.
The group’s attorney, John Branson, held a news conference on the steps of the Cumberland County Courthouse on Monday afternoon, kicking off a legal battle that became all-but-inevitable when the City Council voted Dec. 7 to deny OccupyMaine’s petition request to keep its tent community up for at least another six months.
Portland City Manager Mark Rees told the protesters in a letter that if they did not file a lawsuit by noontime Monday, the city would require them to take down their tents and move out of the park.
Branson filed the lawsuit at about 8:45 a.m. Monday, he said.
On behalf of the group, Branson is seeking a preliminary injunction that will protect the demonstrators from being removed from Lincoln Park while the merits of their case are being decided by the court.
The city of Portland has 21 days to file a response to OccupyMaine’s initial motion, and the protest group will have another seven days after the city’s response is filed to react to it.
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg told the Bangor Daily News on Monday afternoon that city officials are reviewing Branson’s filings and plan to maintain “the status quo” until the court rules on the preliminary injunction.
In the long term, Branson said he aims to prove in court that the city’s intended eviction of OccupyMaine defies not only the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection of free speech and assembly, but also language in the Maine Constitution’s Declaration of Rights outlining citizens’ rights to reform their government and peaceably gather to, in part, “request redress of their wrongs and grievances.”
Heather Curtis, one of four individual OccupyMaine members who appear as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told reporters Monday the group was forced to take its argument to court after the City Council denied its request to remain camped out.
“What’s the alternative?” she asked. “We’re not going to roll over and say, ‘Sorry we were exercising our First Amendment rights.’”
If the preliminary injunction is denied in Cumberland County Superior Court and the city begins to take action to remove the demonstrators from the park, Curtis said “at that point there will be individual choices” to make by OccupyMaine members.
Branson said the group’s general assembly — the Occupy movement’s democratic decision-making meeting — will not demand that protesters put themselves in potential harm’s way by refusing to leave the encampment in the face of police action to remove them. He echoed Curtis’ comment that each demonstrator will have to make his or her own decision whether to leave at that point.
But he said first and foremost, OccupyMaine is focused on peacefully protecting the camp through the court system.
“What these brave folks are doing during the coldest months of the year is remaining [in the park] and continuing to draw attention to the issues threatening our democracy,” Branson said.
The group first gathered in Portland on Oct. 1 — shortly thereafter moving from Monument Square to Lincoln Park at the city’s request — in solidarity with the larger Occupy Wall Street and in protest against corporate influence on government and growing wealth consolidation in America.
City attorney Gary Wood told the City Council last week he feels optimistic about the city’s chances of withstanding a legal challenge by OccupyMaine after U.S. District Judge Nancy Torreson earlier this month denied a motion by members of Occupy Augusta that would have allowed them to camp out across from the State House without getting a permit to do so.
But Branson said Monday the situation in Portland is unique among the “plethora of lawsuits around the country” seeking to preserve satellite Occupy encampments.
Primarily, he said, the city of Portland does not have public space designated as available 24 hours a day for constitutionally protected public assemblies, as is the case in many other cities. He also said Portland city ordinance language calling for advance municipal approval of gatherings of 25 or more people or for longer than three days constitutes “prior restraints on speech” that buck First Amendment rights.