ACLU: Occupy MN has right to unrestricted use of public property -- and free electricity, too

Here in Minneapolis, our local Occupy movement hasn’t made national news, thanks to a smaller turnout and relatively little outrageous behavior.  However, the ACLU has now jumped into the fray, suing Hennepin County (Minneapolis) for enforcing rules and laws on the use of public property where the Occupiers have camped.  Specifically, the ACLU wants Hennepin County to grant unrestricted use indefinitely to the Occupiers on the basis of free speech … which apparently includes free electricity, too (via Rob Port):

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota sued Hennepin County on Monday on behalf of OccupyMPLS, the protest group camping out on the Government Center Plaza in downtown Minneapolis in defiance of county rules.

The ACLU suit contends that those rules, which forbid tents and electricity, and “certain unwritten procedures enforced by the county” violate the demonstrators’ free speech rights. …

The suit asks that new rules restricting the use of chalk, electricity and tents be declared unconstitutional. The plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction against the rules, and they want the county to provide electricity for the protesters. It also asks that officials stop giving trespass notices to protesters who build temporary shelters or use chalk to express their views.

The county has said the plaza is not designed for long-term occupation and that the restrictions adopted earlier this month are needed because of health and safety concerns and increased security costs.

There may be a legitimate political gripe about the promulgation of rules in response to the Occupy protests.  However, the county had not imagined that anyone would claim the right to squat indefinitely on public land as a form of political protest, and the grounds are in use every day for all members of the public.  The fact that these individuals hold signs and chant rhyming slogans give them no special grant to use public property in a way that creates a semi-permanent obstruction for everyone else’s use, and that most especially includes chalking up the sidewalks and running power cables all over the place, a potential safety hazard for pedestrians and a potential fire hazard under some circumstances.

The ACLU’s demand that the county supply the electricity is just … perfect.  What better statement for this movement to make than to demand that county taxpayers buy the electricity that will keep this obstacle in business for a while longer?  They want free education, free electricity, and now free housing of a sort, although they weren’t successful in getting it:

Two people arrested in Minneapolis during a weekend protest against Wall Street remained in custody Sunday, while a video posted on the Occupy Minnesota website showed an officer appearing to use his squad car to push one of the men out of the way during the demonstration.

The men were arrested Saturday at a foreclosed home that was being occupied by protesters. One was arrested on charges of burglary and trespassing, while the other was arrested for obstruction of justice after refusing to move for police. A video posted on the group’s website shows the man standing in front of a squad car, as an officer slowly begins driving the car forward — causing the man to be pushed back. …

About two dozen protesters returned to the foreclosed home on Sunday as fire officials boarded up the house. Police were on hand, but Sullivan said the protesters were peaceful and there were no arrests.

We had heard that the Occupiers would start squatting in foreclosed homes as a way to beat the cold out in the open at “People’s Plaza,” but there is one big difference that they apparently didn’t take into consideration.  The county can impose rules on the use of public property and cite people who violate them, but breaking into private property is burglary — and that results in more than just a citation and a fine.  It will be much more difficult to explain away a burglary conviction than one for disorderly conduct.

Free homes, free electricity, unrestricted use of public property, and waiving all the rules … this isn’t a political movement.  It’s the equivalent of a temper tantrum from a two-year-old.  This is the Freeloader Movement.

Meanwhile, over in Boston, we find out that free speech is a quality reserved for those animals more equal than others:

From a respectable distance on the sidewalk on Atlantic Avenue, I observe a Boston EMS technician patiently trying to coax the woman out of her tent to take her to the hospital. Two cops look on. The woman obviously has some mental health issues.

Out of the blue, a 20-something female occupier with a disgusted look on her face comes running up to me, gets in my face and yells, “Get out of here. You have no right to watch.” I say nothing and instead walk away from her. But I continue to observe the EMS tech and cops from another vantage point doing their jobs. …

A few minutes later, she returns. “I told you to get out of here,” she screams at me. “I won’t say it again. What’s wrong with you? It’s none of your business.”

This time I respond. “I’m a citizen of the United States, I am on public property, and I am doing nothing wrong,” I tell her. She fumes, but goes away.

Then some older occupier, pretending to sweep the sidewalk, sweeps a whole bunch of debris up on to my pants. It was hard, but I ignore him.

Other people are now watching EMS do their job as well, with one young guy taking pictures. Another occupier comes over and, in a threatening voice, orders him to stop. “Bite me,” the shutterbug calmly tells the occupier. “Last time I looked, this is America pal.” I say to myself, “Way to go kid!”

For a “movement” that takes place on public property, the Occupiers seem to have a real problem about transparency.  I wonder what else they’re hiding, in Boston and around the country.

Update: Reader Michael G says that the protesters were willing to pay for the electricity, and refers me to paragraph 64 of the ACLU’s complaint:

Electricity supply on the Plazas was  cut off by the County on Tuesday, November 8, 2011, notwithstanding the fact that Plaintiffs are willing and able to pay for any and all electricity used by them for purposes of demonstrations.  The County has rejected Plaintiffs’ offer to pay for the electricity because it is not interested in making the Plaintiffs “comfortable.”  Since OccupyMPLS has been unable to access electricity on the Plazas, it has become more and more difficult to keep laptops, cell phones, and other computer equipment charged so that OccupyMPLS can continue broadcasting the demonstrations online on the livestream.  There have been several occasions in which the livestream has stopped broadcasting because the demonstrators’ computer batteries have gone dead.  Plaintiff Richards has struggled to keep the OccupyMPLS laptop computers charged so that Plaintiffs are able to provide continuous livestream coverage.

However, under Count II of “Causes of Action,” paragraph 8, the ACLU demand does not include any provision for paying for the electricity:

By reason of Defendants’ misconduct and threatened misconduct, and the irreparable harm Plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer, Plaintiffs are entitled to a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction requiring Defendants, their officers, agents, servants, attorneys, and any person acting in concert and participation with them, with actual notice of the injunction by personal service or otherwise, to make electricity available to Plaintiffs  on the Plazas through Defendants’ existing electrical outlets to convey their message.

Also, the same demand appears in clause C of the Request for Relief:

Upon Count Two of their Complaint, a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction requiring Defendants to make electricity available to Plaintiffs on the Plazas through Defendants’ existing electrical outlets to convey their message.

In other words, because of the offensive nature of cutting off power, the ACLU demands that Hennepin County start supplying electricity immediately, and absent any promise to pay for it.  Even if they did offer to pay for the electricity, though, how would Hennepin County figure out how to determine the cost of the power being consumed in the plaza?  And who, exactly, in this leaderless movement would be accountable for paying the bill?

It looks like the Star Tribune’s reporting on the demand for free electricity was substantially correct.