Lawyers for OccupyMaine, Portland to argue in court next week

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PORTLAND — Lawyers for OccupyMaine and the city will square off in court for the first time next week.

On Jan. 24, the protesters will ask Superior Court Judge Thomas Warren for a temporary injunction to prevent the city from evicting OccupyMaine from Lincoln Park, at least until the protesters’ lawsuit against the city is adjudicated.

If Warren rules against OccupyMaine, the city would be free to evict the protesters.

The protesters’ attorney, John Branson, filed paperwork Monday in Cumberland County Superior Court to support his client’s argument for an injunction against the city, which has argued for its right to enforce the 10 p.m. closing time at Lincoln Park.

Protesters maintain that their round-the-clock occupation of the park is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. They sued the city Dec. 20 after the City Council voted 8-1 to evict the protesters from Lincoln Park, saying it would be best left to the courts to decide whether OccupyMaine is engaging in constitutionally protected activity. 

OccupyMaine’s lawsuit claims its occupation of public space is integral to its message,  and challenges the city’s use of a no-loitering ordinance to evict the protesters.

In Monday’s reply to the city’s Jan. 6 response to the lawsuit, OccupyMaine said “the city suggests that, because (OccupyMaine) are not continuously marching around the park handing around leaflets, that the federal and state constitution do not afford them any protection.”

OccupyMaine, in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, has been camping in Lincoln Park since Oct. 3, 2011. The groups oppose corporate influence in politics and government, as well as perceived economic injustices from an unequal distribution of wealth.

At its peak, about 75 people were staying overnight in Lincoln Park. It is difficult to assess how many people are camping on any given night this winter, but Branson said people are still there in tents every night.

For its part, the city asserts its right to enforce time, place and manner restrictions on the group’s activities, even if those activities constitute legally protect free speech.

The city cites federal and state laws it says support “compliance with health, welfare and safety codes like the City’s Building Code and Fire Codes as well as park maintenance and protection requirements.”

In an interview Friday, Branson said what comes next will depend largely on Warren’s ruling. It could be up to 12 months before his group’s lawsuit goes to court, but he said he anticipates the city will seek an expedited trial if his group wins the temporary injunction.

OccupyMaine has also yet to decide whether to ask for a jury trial, Branson said. 

“A lot is going to depend on what happens with the injunction,” he said. “I don’t want to try to project beyond the court’s decision on that.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.