Cities that broke up Occupy camps now face lawsuits over free speech, use of force

Cities that broke up Occupy camps now face lawsuits over free speech, use of force

  The Washington Post  December 22, 2011

 Niedowski reported from Providence, R.I. Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela in New York contributed.

Yvette Felarca is among those suing campus police and administration officials at the University of California, Berkeley, after officers forcefully dispersed a group of Occupy protesters and others rallying for public education last month.

Felarca, a middle school teacher and organizer with the civil rights organization By Any Means Necessary, which filed the suit, says she was standing, arms linked with other demonstrators’, before a line of police officers who moved in after some tents were set up on a lawn.

She said she was chanting and yelling when a police officer hit her in the throat with his baton. She said she was also hit in her ribs, abdomen and back and watched others bear repeated blows.

“The brutality was absolutely designed to chill the speech of students in the movement and literally try to beat and terrorize our right to criticize, to think critically and to act on that criticism,” Felarca said.

The university has called it “disconcerting” that the suit contains “so many inaccuracies.”

Sobel, of the National Lawyers Guild, said a lawsuit is also planned in the case of the pepper-spraying by campus police of peaceful protesters at the University of California, Davis, video footage of which went viral.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the lawsuits an important check on police power. She noted that authorities haven’t been uniformly excessive around the country, but pointed in New York City to mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge — which are under litigation — as well as the pepper-spraying of several women and the dark-of-night breakup of Zuccotti Park.

She said that her group has been concerned for years about police tactics, but that the response to the Occupy movement shines a light on them in a way that “engages and offends a new sector of the public.”

She predicted there will be other lawsuits about excessive force, civil rights violations and mostly likely people’s rights to get back into Zuccotti, which she said police have blocked from public usage with their pens.

“I think what’s been happening with Occupy is so reminiscent of what happened during the Republican National Convention” in 2008, she said. “When people get together to engage in that most American of pastimes — protest — it almost always generates a defensive and repressive response from law enforcement. Occupy is no exception.”

Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said police overreacted to the Occupy movement in some cities, which probably earned protesters some new support. Still, he noted, protesters’ First Amendment rights are not without limitation.

“We’ve always had to balance our rights,” he said. “No one can really claim you have an unfettered unlimited First Amendment rights. The courts are there to say, wait a minute, that goes too far, or that’s OK. It is part of that give and take. Of course we all wish our rights were never intruded upon.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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