12/17/2013 06:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Nikki Haley May Have Violated Occupy Protesters' Free Speech Rights, Court Finds

A group of Occupy protesters suing South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) over their ejection from the State House grounds have a "viable" claim that she violated their First Amendment rights, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.

Nineteen Occupy Columbia protesters were camped out on Nov. 16, 2011, when Haley had them arrested on two hours notice. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Monday that their arrest may have been unconstitutional, because they were arrested without a formal rule change banning sleeping, and so their lawsuit can continue.

Fourteen of the protesters sued Haley in 2011, stating, "The reason why the Occupy protests are so controversial and uncomfortable for governmental officials to endure is that it is the most persuasive form of peaceful, nonviolent protest."

"What Governor Haley objects to is Plaintiffs' message and she would not have evicted Plaintiffs if she were aligned with Plaintiffs," their suit said.

But a Haley spokesman defended her actions to the Associated Press on the grounds that the protesters "destroyed public property" and "used the State House flower beds as a toilet."

On Monday the appeals court, in a preliminary ruling, said there was enough evidence supporting the protesters' claims that their lawsuit against Haley and law enforcement officials could go ahead.

"In sum, we hold that the Occupy Columbia protesters have stated a viable claim that Appellants violated their First Amendment rights to assemble and protest peacefully on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in the absence of a valid time, place, or manner regulation," wrote 4th Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker in the ruling, in which the two other members of the three-judge panel concurred.

“There are still several steps to go in order to resolve this matter in the courts,” Haley's spokesman Doug Mayer told the newspaper the State. “We continue to stand behind the decision made two years ago -- and which is still the rule today -- that the State House grounds are not meant to be used as a public toilet or campground."



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