COLUMBIA, S.C. — Occupy Columbia protesters would be banned from resuming their around-the-clock presence on Statehouse grounds under a bill a Senate panel advanced Tuesday.
The bill, approved unanimously, would put into state law the emergency regulation adopted in December that banned camping and sleeping around the state capitol. The five-member Budget and Control Board, led by Gov. Nikki Haley, approved the emergency rule days after a federal judge said Occupy Columbia protesters could stay until regulations were put in place.
Judge Cameron McGowan Currie initially blocked protesters' removal Dec. 14, saying no valid rules on Statehouse camping and sleeping existed, only internal policies that didn't address that. Protesters removed their gear and dispersed Dec. 23, after a second hearing in which Currie determined the emergency rule meant her injunction no longer applied.
"It was an emergency because they lost in court," protester Melissa Harmon told the Senate subcommittee Tuesday, arguing against putting the rule into law.
Those 90-day emergency regulations expire March 18 — several weeks before regulations created through the normal process could be in place. A public hearing isn't scheduled until March 29, and legislators don't want the gap.
The unanimous vote sent the bill to the full Senate Finance Committee.
Tim Liszewski, Occupy Columbia's liaison to state officials, said the rules are directed at Occupy Columbia and hamper protesters' First Amendment rights.
The panel's chairman, Sen. William O'Dell, asked the purpose of staying on the Statehouse lawn, saying the Occupy Wall Street complaints don't pertain to South Carolina.
"Why not go to a post office or something? That's federal," said the Ware Shoals Republican.
Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, contended the grounds theoretically are no more public than public buildings around the state, including the Senate meeting room, and if the protests' arguments carried over, they couldn't put locks on anything.
Liszewski told senators their 24-hour protest, which began Oct. 15, represented a symbolic taking back of the grounds for people who lack lobbyists' access to lawmakers — a protest inspired by Occupy Wall Street but not connected to that group. Recognizing public buildings can't have 24-hour access, he said protesters chose a space that didn't disrupt others while allowing interaction with the public.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler doubted the effectiveness of such a tactic.
"You can accomplish more in the last 10 minutes than you did that whole time," Peeler told Harmon, who noted she stayed overnight at least four nights a week for those two months. "You can accomplish more sitting right there than camping out there."
The rules do not affect catering tents often put up by lobbying groups hosting legislators' lunch. While protesters said that's an example of lobbyist privilege, senators said those are put up for a defined time with permission.
The court case stemmed from Gov. Nikki Haley's Nov. 16 order that protesters leave. Occupiers removed their belongings, but 19 who gathered around the base of a monument past its 6 p.m. curfew were arrested for trespassing. Seven of them sued, arguing their First Amendment rights were violated.
Richland County's chief prosecutor dropped the charges, saying they broke no law.
A lower court judge approved a temporary injunction Nov. 23, allowing them to resume their around-the-clock protest without threat of arrest, and specified they could bring sleeping bags — a first for the group.
The new rule makes no reference to 6 p.m. or any curfew on protesting.