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March 20, 2012 

Local Government Drops Lawsuit Against Occupy Chattanooga

County Voluntarily Withdraws Suit After Public Citizen Moved To Dismiss

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – The Hamilton County government this week has voluntarily dismissed its own lawsuit against Occupy Chattanooga and nine individuals. Public Citizen and Chattanooga attorney David C. Veazey represented the defendants.

The lawsuit sought both a declaratory judgment about the validity of a county anti-demonstration ordinance and an award of court costs against Occupy Chattanooga and the individuals. The defendants had moved to dismiss the case, arguing that a local government cannot sue its citizens to get a court ruling that its own law is constitutional and then force the individuals to pay the county’s litigation costs.

“We are pleased that the county has abandoned its attempt to impose a monetary penalty on a group of innocent people for their political activity,” said Scott Michelman, the Public Citizen attorney working on the case. “Allowing this case to proceed would have set a dangerous precedent for local governments that would use the threat of court costs to chill political speech.”

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. 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 solidarity 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. On behalf of the defendants, Public Citizen and Veazey moved on Jan. 30 to dismiss the case. That motion was pending before the court when the county voluntarily dismissed the suit yesterday.

“The county has correctly recognized that it should not pick a fight with individuals trying to express their views peacefully,” Veazey said. “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, was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.  A copy of defendants’ motion to dismiss is available at http://www.citizen.org/documents/2012-01-30-Occupy-MTD-FULL.pdf.

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