Police arrest a protester during the Nov. 2 Occupy Asheville demonstrations in front of Vance Monument. Photo by Bill Rhodes
Yesterday, 20 Occupy Asheville activists faced charges related to civil disobedience actions last year. The protesters had intentionally violated a park curfew in front of City Hall on Oct. 25 and in front of Vance Monument on Nov. 2 and Nov. 12
Attorney Ben Scales, representing many of the protesters, argued that the charges should be dismissed on constitutional grounds, as the areas were traditional forums for political protest.
“Over the years, the areas in front of City Hall, and even more so, the areas in front of the Vance Monument have been places where people have gathered to express their political opinions and religious beliefs,” he said. “These areas are, without dispute, traditional public forums. The First Amendment accords protections to people seeking to use streets, parks, and other public areas for politically expressive activity.”
Asheville City Council later changed the curfew for Pack Square Park, designating the areas in front of City Hall and the Vance monument “public forums” where protest is allowed at any hour.
“The city has seen the error of its ways,” Scales said. “These arrests could not happen today.”
But Assistant District Attorney Doug Edwards noted that the “city does not have to permit all forms of speech” and that the curfew was a “content-neutral restriction that leaves open many other alternatives” for free speech. The fact the city later changed the rule, he argued, was irrelevant.
Judge Edwin Clontz said he saw merit in both arguments, but felt the city’s curfew passed legal muster.
“I look at the statute and it doesn’t just apply to this park or that park, it applies to all of them,” Clontz said. “On its face, it would appear that the ordinance is valid. I don’t see anything that’s arbitrary or capricious.”
Following the judge’s ruling, 17 activists plead guilty to the charges — mostly minor trespassing violations — and all were sentenced to the time they had already served after their arrests.
Three activists — Matthew Burd, Robert Halas, and Victor Ochoa — instead plead not guilty and chose to act as their own attorneys, choosing to make statements about why they had protested and crediting their actions with the city’s eventual decision to lift the curfew in some areas.
“There are issues much bigger than any trespassing or curfew ordinance: they’re a moral issue,” Ochoa said. “That’s what we were after.”
Clontz found all three guilty, and sentenced them, like the others, to time served.
Three other Occupy Asheville activists arrested during the Feb. 17 eviction of the camp had their court date delayed until Aug. 30.