A court order allowing protesters to stay on the green expires at 5 p.m. local time today, ruled U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz in New Haven, Connecticut. The judge asked the city to give the protesters until noon tomorrow to evacuate and said that if city officials must forcibly remove the camp, it should be done during daylight hours.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said in a statement that the city would honor the judge’s request, and “we expect the members of Occupy New Haven to do the same.”
Members of the protest group, one of many to grow out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, have camped on the green since Oct. 15 to protest income inequality and unemployment. They accused the city in a lawsuit of trying to drive them out on behalf of the green’s proprietors, an unelected committee led by Yale Law School Professor Emeritus Drew Days, a former U.S. solicitor general in the Clinton administration, in time for Yale graduation ceremonies in May.
The city, which administers the land, served the eviction notice March 12 “at the request of the proprietors so that the area adjacent to the New Haven Green would be free from signs of political protest,” according to the protesters’ complaint. The eviction is “part of the annual effort to create a Potemkin- like aura of serenity in downtown New Haven,” they said.
In his ruling today, Kravitz wrote that “the city’s rules governing the use of the New Haven Green -- as established and clarified through longstanding practice -- are constitutionally acceptable, content-neutral restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which members of the public can exercise their most important civic rights in New Haven’s most important public space.”
The group still has the right to protest if it gets a permit, the judge said.
The ruling means that the green “will once again be a place for all and not serve as a private residence for a few,” DeStefano said in his statement.
Smith said he and another attorney for the group, Norman Pattis, said they expected the protesters to accept the decision but discovered “a change in the direction of the wind. They said they would like to go forward.”
The protesters, in their March 13 complaint, sought a court order allowing them to stay indefinitely and dissolving the proprietors’ committee, which they said “purports to govern public property, but by means secret, seemingly hereditary and offensive to the values and principles of a republic.”
“The current committee is believed to be the only colonial vestige in the U.S. still maintaining title to land in public use,” according to a filing by the protesters. The green should be “open and available to all,” they said in that filing.
Members of the Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands in New Haven serve for life, according to the lawsuit. At least four of the five proprietors are connected to Yale by marriage, education or employment, according to the members’ online profiles.
Kravitz didn’t rule on the protesters’ argument that the relationship between city officials and the proprietors is illegal.
“By relying on the city’s well-established -- indeed seemingly uninterrupted -- practice, the court need not determine the legal status of the rules as promulgated by the proprietors,” Kravitz wrote in his ruling.
Pattis said he was disappointed that Kravitz didn’t address the legal standing of the proprietors.
“As brilliant as Judge Kravitz is, he fundamentally avoided the issue as to who makes the rules on the green,” Pattis said.
The 16-acre (6.5 hectare) green has been a public meeting spot since 1638 and once served as the city’s graveyard, said James Campbell, librarian for the New Haven Museum. Thousands of bodies still lie beneath it.
In a March 26 memo that doesn’t address the question of ownership, the city said it has the right to regulate the time, place and manner of public protests.
The city said the protesters’ structures are damaging trees and grass. The eviction is an attempt to “prevent a small group of individuals from becoming indefinite, full-time residents on the green.”
Tom Conroy, a spokesman for the 311-year-old university, declined to comment on the ruling. Yale wasn’t a party to the lawsuit, he said.
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators camping in New York’s Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space, were evicted in November and a state judge said that they failed to show they had a First Amendment right to stay in the park. In December, a Massachusetts judge said police could evict protesters from a Boston square without court approval.
Irving Pinsky, an attorney who has advised the New Haven protesters, said in an interview that he was at the park shortly after the ruling was issued. He said he expects some protesters will leave voluntarily tomorrow while others may resist, arguing that city officials should ask the housing court to evict a tenant just as a landlord would be required to do.
The case is Mitchell v. City of New Haven, 12-cv-00370, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut (New Haven).
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