OccupyMaine attorney tells judge: Lincoln Park is part of the group’s expression

Posted Jan. 24, 2012, at 5:15 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — An attorney representing OccupyMaine argued during a daylong court hearing Tuesday that the group’s constitutionally protected expression is inseparable from its occupation of Portland’s Lincoln Park.

Therefore, attorney John Branson argued before Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren, the city of Portland ordering the demonstrators to move is tantamount to trampling their freedom of speech.

On Tuesday, Warren heard oral arguments in OccupyMaine’s lawsuit against the city. Portland is asking demonstrators to leave the public park where they’ve camped out since early October. OccupyMaine is the final remaining camp in Maine established in solidarity with the larger Occupy Wall Street movement.

Occupations in Bangor and Augusta already have dissolved after orders by the municipality and court, respectively.

Last month, after hearing from police and safety inspectors about high crime and potential fire hazards at the tent community, the Portland City Council voted 7-1 against approving the group’s petition requesting allowance to stay in Lincoln Park at least another six months.

OccupyMaine, represented by Branson, argued in its lawsuit that forcing the protesters to leave Lincoln Park is infringing on their constitutionally protected freedom to assemble and protest — and further that the Maine Constitution’s Declaration of Rights specifically protects their right to reform their government and peaceably gather to, in part, “ request redress of their wrongs and grievances.

The city argued in its responding court filing that the encampment is unsafe and unsanitary and further that it restricts other members of the public’s freedom to use the city-owned park. Attorney Mark Dunlap, representing the city, told Warren that Portland would like an expedited hearing to put the debate over the encampment to rest as soon as possible.

Warren reportedly did not decide the case Tuesday, however.

Branson called several OccupyMaine members and supporters as witnesses in the case. Before the court broke around noontime for lunch, Branson projected pictures of the encampment taken by Occupy photographers onto a screen before the court, and called the photographers as witnesses.

Through the use of the pictures and the testimony of the members, Branson sought to prove the tent community coexisted with other public uses of the park — including a fall tulip planting by a cancer awareness group — and that the location itself was integral to their constitutionally protected expression, because it attracted attention to the group’s message and provided a venue for public outreach.

“The reason [OccupyMaine’s message] has resonated with the public and the reason it took hold was the 24-hour occupation,” testified former Cumberland County commissioner Malory Shaughnessy, who was called to the stand by Branson. “People have been trying to say for several years the system is broken, but this is the only way it’s taken hold.”

Dunlap tried to prove before the court, in contrast, that occupiers could promote their cause without camping in the city-owned park. He questioned Branson’s witnesses about their events and activities, such as a community television program and meetings at the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street, already held “off campus.”

Further, Dunlap sought to illustrate through his cross examination of some of the Occupy members that the group has too scattered an identity — and too vast a goal set — for the court to grant them uniform demonstration rights.

“What event would lead you to leave the park and say, ‘Our job is done … let’s pull up stakes,’” Dunlap asked witness and Occupy member Alan Porter.

Porter answered that he doesn’t foresee an end to the occupation, and said he won’t leave until the problems of corporate influence on government and the growing income disparity between the wealthy and poor are “solved.”

But Branson responded in court that economic injustice is a complicated subject with many contributing factors and that occupiers should not be penalized for speaking out against any number of them. Branson called upon occupier Heather Curtis, one of four group members signed onto the lawsuit by name, to describe OccupyMaine’s general assembly meeting rules to show the demonstrators’ level of organization.

Warren did not indicate when he would render his decision in the case.

The Associated Press contributed to this report..

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