COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A settlement has been reached this week in a lawsuit filed by Occupy Columbia protest members against Gov. Nikki Haley and other state officials.
Attorneys for Haley and state law enforcement officials agreed during a mediation hearing Wednesday to pay Occupy members $192,000, Drew Radeker told The Associated Press.
“It’s a fair settlement, and we’re glad that the state of South Carolina doesn’t have to continue to pay these lawyers to defend the case that we would have ultimately won anyway,” Radeker said. “We’re pleased with the settlement.”
Other details about the deal were not released. It marks an end to a civil dispute that has been ongoing since Occupy Columbia launched its protest at the Statehouse grounds Oct. 15, 2011, part of a nationwide series of demonstrations against economic inequality. Protesters set up tents, organized safety and medical committees and even rented a portable toilet. Some even stayed at the site nearly around the clock.
A month later, 19 protesters were arrested after Haley, in an effort to roust the protesters, said that anyone attempting to camp out on the Statehouse grounds after 6 p.m. would be arrested by the Bureau of Protective Services for trespassing.
Haley said the protesters were free to return during daylight hours but noted that the occupation had damaged the Statehouse grounds and cost thousands in officer overtime and other costs.
Several of those arrested sued, arguing that their First Amendment rights had been violated. A federal judge in South Carolina initially sided with protesters but reversed that ruling after the state Budget and Control Board - of which Haley is chairwoman - approved emergency regulations that banned sleeping on Statehouse grounds.
The new rule made no reference to 6 p.m. or any curfew on protesting. Haley said the protesters could voice their opinions but just couldn’t sleep or set up camp.
That emergency rule eventually expired and the protesters returned. In March 2012, Haley signed a bill banning camping and sleeping on Statehouse grounds, with the new law containing the same wording as the emergency prohibition.
Richland County prosecutors dropped charges against the protesters, but the civil lawsuit continued. In December, a federal appellate court ruled that the protesters had the right to sue Haley, noting that the governor’s actions did in fact violate the protesters’ civil rights because no regulation in place at the time of their actual arrests banned people from living on Statehouse grounds.
A Haley spokesman said the governor was right to order the protesters’ arrests but did not support the settlement, which was hammered out by representatives of the state’s insurance reserve fund, which provides tort liability insurance to governmental entities.
“Governor Haley made the right call to stop a group of people’s attempt to live on the Statehouse grounds and use our flower beds as a toilet - they presented a clear danger to public health and safety,” Doug Mayer told AP in an email. “In no way does the governor support the Insurance Reserve Fund’s decision to agree to this settlement.”
Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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