NASHVILLE — A federal judge has ruled in favor of members of the Occupy Nashville movement who claimed their free speech rights were violated when they were arrested while protesting in 2011 on War Memorial Plaza.
U.S. District Court Judge Aleta A. Trauger wrote in an order issued on Wednesday that the seven plaintiffs' rights to engage in constitutionally protected free speech activity was violated when they were arrested based on a hastily written rule that banned camping on the plaza.
The plaintiffs sued Gov. Bill Haslam, Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons and Commissioner of General Services Steven Cates. Trauger's order denied some of the plaintiffs' claims but also said that they had prevailed in proving that the state officials could be held liable on claims of violations of free speech rights, violation of due process and unlawful arrest.
Following the national Occupy Wall Street movement, protesters began a 24-hour-a-day presence on the plaza outside of the state Capitol in early October 2011. But the state started getting complaints about trash and public urination and other problems. The state then issued a new policy banning overnight camping on the state property.
In the early morning of Oct. 28, 2011, several protesters were arrested, but a local judicial commissioner refused to sign the arrest warrants because there had not been enough notice of the policy change. The following night, more protesters were arrested, but they were released with misdemeanor citations.
Trauger wrote in her order that even though the state had concerns about public safety on the plaza, officials still had to follow the law to address those concerns.
"Instead, without providing adequate notice to the public at large, they informally attempted to change the law overnight, made no record of the proceedings, and failed to consult with the Attorney General, who otherwise must pass on the constitutional validity of any rule (whether adopted through traditional or emergency procedures) before it becomes law," Trauger wrote.
David Briley, an attorney representing the Occupy Nashville group, called the ruling a resounding victory for the principles of free speech and protest.
A message left with the state attorney general's office was not immediately returned on Wednesday evening.