Occupy MN and ACLU sue Hennepin County

County commissioners call this clutter; ACLU calls it free speech.
County commissioners call this clutter; ACLU calls it free speech.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of four members of the Occupy MN movement. The 92-page filing lists Hennepin County, the county commissioners, Sheriff Rich Stanek, and "unnamed" Hennepin County deputies and security officers as defendants.

At the heart of the lawsuit is whether new restrictions being placed on the protesters occupying Hennepin County Government Plaza are a violation of free speech.

"Defendants' conduct and threatened conduct threatens to deprive Plaintiffs
of their rights secured by the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments," the filing reads.

The plaintiffs -- who filed as "Occupy Minneapolis" since there are now several occupy demonstrations going on throughout the state -- are four demonstrators who've been at Government Plaza on and off since the beginning of the movement in October. They include Ben Egerman and Melissa Rowan, both of whom were arrested at previous demonstrations for blocking the streets, North Dakota National Guard member Samuel Richards, and AmeriCorps tutor Benjamin Painter.

The lawsuit lays out numerous problems with Hennepin County's new restrictions on Occupy Minneapolis, in particular the restrictions on sleeping, the removal of signs, and the confiscation of any "unattended" possessions. Previously, county security and sheriff's deputies allowed these types of activities, but the commissioners voted two weeks ago to end their leniency as winter closes in.

Ben Egerman, left, defends a sign from being taken down.
Ben Egerman, left, defends a sign from being taken down.

So far, there's been limited enforcement on the county's part, although a tense confrontation did erupt earlier this month when occupiers (including Egerman) physically prevented security from removing their signs.

Although county commissioners have argued that they will be liable for any injuries or illness that occur should the occupiers be allowed to sleep in the plaza indefinitely, the lawsuit answers that the act of "occupying" is in itself a statement that deserves First Amendment protection.

"Those who remain in the Plazas maintain a quiet presence and do not disrupt any nearby road, thoroughfare, business, apartment, or public facility," the lawsuit says. "By remaining on the Plazas, demonstration activities can continue throughout the night and individuals assemble to participate in the free expression of ideas."

ACLU executive director Charles Samuelson says the occupiers are fighting to simply go back to the "status quo," where they are allowed to demonstrate, hang signs, keep tables and possessions, and sleep in the plaza if they choose to. He says the county seems to be acting out of fastidiousness when they should be concentrating on respecting free speech.

"It's messy. The First Amendment is like that and they'd just like to clean it up," he says. "But there hasn't been any violence really. It's been rowdier around First Avenue North on Friday, Saturday night than it is down there."

The case goes before a federal judge in St. Paul tomorrow at 11 a.m., where Samuelson hopes Judge Richard Kyle will issue a restraining order against the county.

Read the whole lawsuit here.

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