By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Nashville judge on Monday dismissed trespassing and other citations against 55 Occupy Nashville protesters and ordered their records expunged.
“We won again,” protester Dorsey Malina said after a brief hearing.
The ruling was the latest in a series of defeats for Gov. Bill Haslam’s attempt to dislodge the group with a curfew on the grounds around the state Capitol.
Afterward, Haslam signaled in an interview with The Associated Press that the fight to remove the protesters, or at least curtail their activities, was not over. He said new rules for the space are in the works, and his administration is developing them in cooperation with constitutional lawyers and people who use the space.
Protesters had been camping at the Legislative Plaza for about three weeks when the curfew was announced Oct. 27. The arrests began in the early morning of Oct. 28 and came again on Oct. 29. But the protesters were never jailed because a Nashville magistrate refused to sign the warrants, saying he did not believe the administration had the authority to order the curfew.
Two days later, the protesters saw another victory when they went to federal court seeking a temporary restraining order.
It was not a hard fight. Bill Marett, senior counsel for the state attorney general’s office, announced at the beginning of a hearing that the state would offer no objection, and Judge Aleta Trauger said she had already decided to grant the order.
The curfew was a “clear prior restraint on free speech rights,” she said.
On Monday, Assistant District Attorney General Rosemary Ducklo Sexton told the court, “It is in the interest of justice to dismiss these citations today.” Haslam on Thursday had said through a spokesman that he would ask prosecutors not to press charges, although the final decision lay with the district attorney general’s office.
After the Monday hearing, Haslam said the arrests were in the interest of safety.
“Obviously, the federal judge says you need have the rules set before you do that, so we thought, given all that, the best thing to do was to ask the DA to drop those charges,” he said.
Protesters had argued in federal court filings that the curfew was illegal, among other reasons, because the administration had not followed its own policy on rulemaking, which requires either a public hearing or a public notice period in which people are allowed to petition for a public hearing.
Several protesters expressed relief after the charges were dismissed and a desire to get on with their mission of removing money from politics.
Darlene Neal, a 45-year-old homemaker, said the focus on the arrests has made it easy to miss some of the group’s actions, like a protest at Bank of America’s downtown offices last week and a planned march to the headquarters of Nashville-based private prison company Corrections Corporation of America later Monday.
Malina, who is 55 and a fundraising consultant, said “the state” was spreading lies about the group with accusations of public defecation, urination and sex — some of the reasons given to justify the curfew.
“We have a very strict code of conduct that our members are required to adhere to,” she said, adding that the group cannot be responsible for the actions of every person who comes to the Legislative Plaza.
Haslam said there have been many complaints about the protesters.
“And it’s been portrayed as that that’s been coming from Republican legislators. That was coming from people across the — Republicans, Democrats, people that use the plaza, etc.,” he said.
Protester Eva Watler, a 34-year-old massage therapist, said Occupy Nashville is planning to keep the encampment going for the foreseeable future.
“We’re working hard to winterize the occupation and make sure everyone is safe and healthy and warm,” she said.