- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that Occupy Eugene demonstrators were improperly evicted two years ago from a downtown plaza, but not because a government agency had it in for that particular group of protesters.

The federal agency wrongly restricted free speech rights in what’s long been a public forum in the city, and it did so without giving the public a chance to comment on a policy change, Judge Michael McShane ruled Wednesday.

But he said the action wasn’t aimed at the message of the Occupy movement, which arose in the wake of the Great Recession to protest against social and economic inequality. Demonstrations on Wall Street in 2011 spread nationally.

In Eugene, demonstrators got a permit in May 2012 from the agency that manages federal buildings, the General Services Administration, and set up a 24-hour protest site on the Federal Building’s plaza.

They put up flags and signs and distributed pamphlets.

When their 60-day permit expired, they sought a 30-day extension. Federal officials denied it and required protesters to limit their demonstration to weekday business hours.

McShane said that was wrong and noted that signs on the plaza say it is open to the public daily between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., the Register-Guard (https://is.gd/fiwfuc) reported.

The GSA has the right to manage its property, McShane said, but “those rights sometimes clash with First Amendment rights, especially when, as here, GSA’s outdoor property in the middle of downtown Eugene happens to be a traditional public forum.”

The attorney for the protesters, Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, called the ruling “an important victory,” although she still believes the protesters were targeted because they were part of the Occupy movement.

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. attorney’s office said it’s evaluating the ruling, but is pleased that the court “recognized that the General Services Administration did not aim its regulations at the content of Occupy Eugene’s speech” but rather considered the “unique issues” presented by a group of permanent “occupiers.” The U.S. attorney’s office added that it appreciates the court’s recognition that the GSA is entitled to discretion in enforcing its permitting process.

One protester was handcuffed and ticketed for failing to comply with a lawful direction after she refused to leave the plaza at the direction of federal officers. A judge dismissed her case six months later at the request of prosecutors.

Protesters twice tried to re-establish round-the-clock protests but either left or were dispersed after authorities wouldn’t allow it.

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Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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