Banned protesters file lawsuit

Nick Hadjigeorge

A lawsuit filed in federal court Monday morning against the city of Austin claims their policy of banning arrested protesters from returning to City Hall is a violation of the First Amendment.

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and attorney for the two plaintiffs, said the city’s criminal trespassing policy, which came into effect on Nov. 1 after the arrest of 38 protesters, is a clear violation of First Amendment political speech rights and has prevented 95 people from returning to City Hall.

“I’ve never heard of any other place in this country that is trying to ban people’s free speech like they are in Austin,” Harrington said. “It’s hypocrisy at its greatest.”

Samantha Park, information specialist for the city of Austin, said the city’s law department is currently reviewing the charges and is unable to comment because the litigation is pending.

She said the only comment the city has at this time is to point out that the Texas Civil Rights Project’s press release contained factually incorrect statements.

“We haven’t banned anyone for more than one year, only 81 people have been banned since Oct. 30 and the name of the City Hall plaza is not Freedom Plaza,” Park said.

Harrington said the two plaintiffs in the case were arrested for non-violent crimes, and the city has unconstitutionally restricted their right to free speech.

Harrington said one of the plaintiffs in the case, Rudy Sánchez, was arrested while videotaping the police during the Oct. 30 Occupy Austin morning protests and was later told he was banned for two years from returning to the City Hall protests.

He said the second plaintiff in the case, Kris Sleeman, was arrested at City Hall in the evening of Oct. 30 for an outstanding bicycle ticket warrant and was told he would be banned from returning to City Hall for one year.

Harrington said the case could be decided in a little as two weeks and is confident that his clients will be successful.

“If we don’t reach an agreement with the city before tomorrow, then it will go to court within two weeks,” Harrington said. “The actual case will be decided in one day and I think the law is definitely on our side.”

Occupy Austin protester Anton, who chose not to give his last name because of privacy concerns, said the protests will be expanding to include the Capitol building to allow the people banned from City Hall to participate in the demonstrations.

“If we only stay at City Hall we will never be able to grow,” Anton said. “We already have almost 100 people who can’t participate in it, and that will increase if more arrests occur.”

Anton said expanding Occupy Austin to the Capitol would be helpful for the movement because of the increased space, more pleasant scenery and a friendlier police force to work with.

“The state police are a lot friendlier than Austin Police Department [officers],” Anton said. “We already know from our experience at City Hall that the city is not interested in negotiating with us.”

Anton said he has spoken with a lawyer who confirmed it is legal for protesters to remain on Capitol grounds for 24 hours a day, but the issue of sleeping is still uncertain because no permanent structures, such as tents, will be allowed.

“We will be learning from our mistakes at City Hall,” Anton said.

Printed on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 as: TCRP fils free speech lawsuit against Austin