PORTLAND — OccupyMaine protesters were dealt a major setback Wednesday when a Maine Superior Court judge ruled that their tent city in Lincoln Park is not a form of constitutionally protected speech.
The ruling clears the way for the city to evict the protesters, who have camped in the park since October.
A City Hall spokeswoman said no immediate action was planned against the encampment.
“We need to have a conversation internally and then I can share a time frame” about the eviction, spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said.
The ruling comes a week after attorneys for OccupyMaine and the city presented their arguments to Judge Thomas Warren at the Cumberland County Courthouse, which faces Lincoln park.
A handful of protesters near the kitchen area of camp this morning said they weren’t sure what would happen next, or whether they would appeal the decision to Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court.
“We have to talk with our lawyer,” Deseree Tanguay said. “The city has told us in the past that they weren’t going to raid us, so we expect some notice.”
Many of the approximately 20 people still living at Lincoln Park are homeless. It’s unclear where they’ll go if the city evicts the encampment.
“Realistically, there’s no plan for us,” said Matt Coffey, an occupier who was previously homeless.
In his ruling, Warren denied a preliminary injunction sought by Occupy Maine. The order would have allowed the protesters to stay in the park until their lawsuit against the city is resolved.
Occupiers are suing in response to the City Council’s 8-1 decision to evict the group. They claim their activity – including the occupation of public space – is constitutionally protected political activity.
Warren said there is “no doubt” OccupyMaine is sincere in its efforts to communicate its message and engage in First Amendment activity. However, he wrote, the group’s assertion of a right to stay in the park around the clock would “conflict with the rights of others who might wish to use the park for their own First Amendment activities or for other purposes.”
“The city is not obliged to agree to such an occupation,” Warren continued. “If it did, it would be difficult to see why any other groups wishing to communicate their views would not have an equal right to permanently commandeer public spaces for that purpose.”
John Branson, the attorney for OccupyMaine, could not immediately be reached for comment. He has previously said it may not be worth continuing the lawsuit against the city if the protesters have already been evicted.
Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.