Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…
— “Mrs. Robinson“
Old habits die hard. As I posted today’s Virtual Front Page, featuring a blurb about the Occupy Columbia situation at the State House, I glanced at the time. It was just past 6 p.m. So how did I know there weren’t new arrests taking place as I was posting? Well, I didn’t.
I didn’t know, and none of the more obvious websites were telling me anything. Thestate.com only had a minimal update since the night before. The movement’s (I almost said “the organization’s,” but that wouldn’t be accurate) website didn’t tell me.
The trouble is, I don’t have any reporters to go check and see what’s happening. That’s what I’ve done most of my life when I had a question that was holding things up — send somebody to find out and let me know.
So you know who had to schlep his tired bones down to the State House. Yup. And that’s harder than it sounds, because parking is scarce with Vista Lights going on.
So I parked in one of the “working media” spots, and started rehearsing my explanation that I was, too, working media in case of challenge, when I realized I was walking across the State House grounds after 6 p.m. With impunity. As I moved toward the Confederate monument, I saw a group of people in the gloaming near the flag — on the part of the grounds people were arrested for being on last night. One looked like Walid Hakim. Another figure separated from the group and headed my way. “Hey, Brad.” It was Jack Kuenzie from WIS.
I said aloud to Jack what I was thinking: What makes being on the grounds after 6 a crime? Nobody was challenging us, although two BPS officers were standing at the steps about 25 yards away. Jack said he’d seen plenty of people cross the area unmolested — joggers, people walking their pets and the like. And, he said, Walid — “You mean Walid, the non-leader leader?” and Jack nodded — had been walking about on the grounds without being touched.
Most of the Occupiers were across the street, it having been informally decided that the “grounds” extended to the curb on the south side of Gervais. But Walid, his lawyer, and four or five others — some media — were still on the proscribed side.
Jack speculated that maybe carrying a sign was what made you a trespasser (and that’s what the19 were arrested on last night, trespassing — or at least Walid was, which is all I can say for sure, since no Occupier is allowed to speak for others). Well, if so, then this really is a First Amendment issue — which I had doubted.
The way I look at it, the duly constituted authorities are within their rights — or perhaps I should say, within their responsibilities — to say you can’t be in a particular place at a particular time. That is not a First Amendment issue, as long as you can peaceably assemble somewhere nearby.
But if some people are allowed on the grounds at that time, what’s going on. In fact, even the people arrested last night were now allowed to be where they were forbidden to be at the same time 24 hours earlier. At least, Walid was. Was it that he wasn’t chanting? If so, First Amendment again.
Was it that there were no sleeping bags or tarps or tents? All of those were gone before 6 p.m. last night, too. So what was the difference? After I walked over myself to chat with Walid, who had by that time reached the sidewalk in front of the Christmas tree, he said he had wished one of the officers a good evening while on the grounds, and nothing happened.
But you know what? That’s not the biggest legal question I have in all of this. The biggest is, What gave Nikki Haley the authority to order the protesters off the grounds at ALL, whatever the stipulations?
Sen. Harvey Peeler had petitioned the governor as a member of the Budget and Control Board, because the Division of General Services supposedly had jurisdiction. Well, Nikki Haley is but one of five members of that board. I’m unaware of any statutory or constitutional authorization that enables her to unilaterally tell a division of the B&C what to do. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; I’m just unaware of it.
Finally, last time I looked, the Department of Public Safety was not a Cabinet agency, and the governor has no direct authority over it. Yes, the officers in that agency traditionally act like they work for her (and many likely think they do), but unless my memory is mistaken — which is possible — they don’t. Not technically.
Anyway, Walid says his day in court is Dec. 15, now that he’s out of jail (after about 6 or 7 hours in last night) on a $470 bond. It will be interesting to hear some of these issues aired.