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Judge: City of Austin Policy Violates Free Speech

Trespass notices given to Occupiers by city not legally sound

By Jordan Smith, 12:03PM, Thu. Sep. 27, 2012

Sanchez (c) and Sleeman (r) outside the federal courthouse in Austin last year
Sanchez (c) and Sleeman (r) outside the federal courthouse in Austin last year
Photo by John Anderson

Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel has concluded that the city's use of criminal trespass notices to scatter Occupy Austin protesters from city-owned property late last year violates the First Amendment's free speech protection, according to a judgment entered today.

The ruling comes nearly a year after protestors Rudy Sanchez and Kristopher Sleeman sued the city over its hastily issued policy last fall, during Occupy Austin's encampment at City Hall, regarding the issuance of criminal trespass notices to individuals on city-owned property.

According to Yeakel, the policy is "unconstitutional on its face," and "does not serve as a valid time, place, and manner restriction and is not narrowly tailored to achieve a significant public interest," which are necessary to restrict otherwise constitutionally protected free speech activities.

In an email, Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represented Sanchez and Sleeman, wrote that to suggest he is "pleased" by the ruling "would be an understatement."

There's no word yet on whether the city will appeal. A statement from the city is expected later today.*

*UPDATE:

City public information officer Reyne Telles just sent over this from the city in response to Yeakel's ruling:

The ruling directs the City not to enforce its 2011 administrative bulletin in relation to criminal trespass notices. This bulletin was created to support and defend all individuals’ free speech, while balancing the importance of protecting the health and safety of all our residents. The ruling does not affect our current building use policy, which designates areas of City Hall for free speech purposes within an established process. The City’s legal staff is reviewing the ruling and will determine what future actions to take, including a possible appeal.

Find more on the lawsuit here.

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