Public Citizen Moves to Dismiss County’s Lawsuit Against Occupy Chattanooga

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Public Citizen Moves to Dismiss County’s Lawsuit Against Occupy Chattanooga

First-of-Its-Kind Suit Seeks to Force Individuals to Pay County’s Costs for Seeking Judicial Validation of Its Own Law

WASHINGTON - A county government cannot sue its citizens to get a court ruling that its own law is constitutional and force the individuals to pay the county’s litigation costs, Public Citizen told a federal court today on behalf of Occupy Chattanooga and a group of individual defendants.

Earlier this month, Hamilton County sued Occupy Chattanooga and several alleged demonstrators, not all of whom are affiliated with the group, seeking a declaration that the county’s new anti-demonstration ordinance is valid. Represented by Public Citizen and Chattanooga attorney David C. Veazey, the defendants today moved to dismiss the case, arguing that it violates constitutional limits on the authority of the federal courts and would force individuals with no stake in the outcome of the case to pay the county’s costs and legal fees.

Although Occupy movements in various cities have initiated court battles over the extent of their rights, this lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind against Occupy demonstrators.

“By suing demonstrators for a ruling on its own law and seeking to recover fees and costs, the county is trying to impose a monetary penalty on a group of innocent people for their political activity – or, in the case of the defendants who are not associated with the Occupy movement, for other people’s political activity,” said attorney Scott Michelman of Public Citizen. “Allowing this case to proceed would set a dangerous precedent for local governments using the threat of court costs to chill political speech.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in September, has brought the issues of income inequality and excessive corporate power to the forefront of the national political conversation and has inspired demonstrations in cities across the U.S. and around the world. In sympathy with Occupy Wall Street, a group of demonstrators organized Occupy Chattanooga in the fall and have gathered, and at times remained overnight, on the grounds of the Hamilton County Courthouse. On Jan. 4, the Hamilton County Commission enacted an ordinance restricting expressive activities like those of the Occupy demonstrators, and on Jan. 10, the county filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that its ordinance is valid. The named defendants are Occupy Chattanooga and nine individuals alleged to be associated with the group.

“The County Commission has never expressed an interest in working with the Occupy movement. However, the demonstrators have been peaceful and fully cooperative with law enforcement in all their activities, so there is no dispute for the court to resolve,” Veazey said. “Sheriff deputies and demonstrators have continued to work together, despite this court action, to ensure that Occupy Chattanooga can express its message in a manner that poses no risk to public safety or the operations of the government.”

The case, Hamilton County v. Alexander, is pending before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.  A copy of defendants’ motion to dismiss is available here.

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Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

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