A federal judge will decide if three protesters who refused to leave U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office a week before Christmas remained in the building illegally after it closed or if they were lawfully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
Jessica Stewart, 38, of Bass Harbor; Sophia Ridgely Fuller, 71, of Belfast; and Sharon Dean, 71, of East Machias were tried Wednesday in federal court in Bangor before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Nivison.
After the nearly four-hour trial, Nivison said he would take the matter under advisement. He did not say when he would announce a decision.
The women were arrested by a U.S. Federal Protective Service officer just before 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 18, 2017. They went to the office to discuss concerns about the Republican senator’s support of a proposed tax bill that subsequently passed. Each was charged with failure to comply with a lawful order, issued a summons and released.
The protesters each could have paid a $130 fine but chose to go to trial instead. If found guilty by Nivison, each faces up to 30 days in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
All three defendants were represented at the trial by Belfast attorney Logan Perkins.
In her opening statement, Perkins said staff in Collins’ office and the Federal Protective Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that polices the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building where the office is located, were experiencing “tax bill fatigue” on Dec. 18.
“The senator’s staff and officers were frustrated with protests that had occurred over several weeks which resulted in an overall impatience with individuals whose message was related to the tax bill,” she said. “That amounts to a content-based response, which violates the First Amendment.”
Perkins also argued that her clients were treated differently than other protesters. Previously, the Federal Protective Service called Bangor police to remove protesters, who were charged in state, rather than federal, court.
Five tax bill protesters were arrested on Dec. 4 by Bangor police after refusing to leave Collins’ Bangor office. Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy declined to prosecute them in exchange for each defendant donating $100 to charity.
The Cumberland County district attorney’s office took the same actions with nine faith leaders who were arrested Dec. 7 in Collins’ Portland office who refused to leave after hours.
“My clients were treated differently than other protesters over the preceding two weeks,” Perkins told the judge. “This jurisdictional change was designed to deter further free speech activity in the senator’s office.”
Federal Protective Service Inspector Gregory Theriault, who arrested and summonsed the women, denied Wednesday that there had been a change in policy due to “tax bill fatigue.”
“The primary law enforcement entity in this building is the Federal Protective Service,” he testified. “I am aware that on prior occasions the Bangor police have been called.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Lizotte, who is prosecuting the case, said in his closing argument that the evidence showed all three defendants are guilty.
“There comes a point in time after a federal police officer says several times that you must leave the building that it is a reasonable response to leave the building,” he told the judge. “Officer Theriault gave them every opportunity to leave the building and they refused.”
If they are found guilty, the defendants may appeal Nivison’s decision to a U.S. District judge.
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