‘Occupy Columbus’ Folds Up In Face Of New City Fee

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The Occupy Columbus Tent stands on the High Street sidewalk in front of the statehouse.(Photo: Sam Hendren / WOSU)
The Occupy Columbus Tent stands on the High Street sidewalk in front of the statehouse.(Photo: Sam Hendren / WOSU)

The price of protest in Columbus has gone up, so much that “Occupy Columbus” leaders have decided to fold up the tent that sat outside the Statehouse for nearly a year.

Occupy Columbus kept its tent on the High Street sidewalk in front of the Statehouse for nearly a year. But that ended after Monday morning when a new city ordinance – number 906 – went into effect. The rule substantially raises the price groups must pay to use sidewalk space.

“I’m here today to rally with Occupy Columbus for the right to maintain a space here on the sidewalks that show my support for freedom of speech; [my] stand against 906,” says movement member Jesse Kloth.

As she spoke, Ginny Horbol held up her booklet of the U.S. Constitution.

“And for them…and for them to want to charge us out the butt just to keep a tent up to begin with is ridiculous,” Horbol says.

The group used to pay the city a dollar a day for tent space. But in July, Columbus City Council passed legislation that raised the fee to $100 for three days. People associated with Occupy Columbus see the city’s action as an effort to get them to leave and to take their sign covered tent with its tattered and faded American flag with them. Movement leader Robert Crane acknowledges that the tent is an eyesore but he compares it to the modern political process.

“It has a look of the ugliness of what often occurs inside the nice clean white marble building that is behind us,” Crane says. “Politics may try to keep a clean façade on its face to make it look pretty but the politics of it is incredibly dirty.”

Jeremy Collins thinks Code 906 is unconstitutional.

“I think it’s illegal,” Collins says. “I think it tramples on our right of free speech; right of freedom of assembly.”

But Columbus’ city attorney disagrees. Rick Pfeiffer says the expense is in line with the sort of demonstration that Occupy Columbus is doing.

“It is not an unreasonable fee,” Pfeiffer says. If you’re going to choose to take up part of the public sidewalk in which all members of the public have an ability to walk on but because of your permit, you’re denying them that use, a $100 fee for three days to occupy the public space and deprive others of it is not unreasonable.”

While Pfeifer defends the fee, Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law professor David Goldberger questions whether the fee is constitutional. Goldberger holds that Supreme Court precedent limits a protest permit fee.

“To the extent that they are trying to recoup costs, the Supreme Court has said that you can’t recoup costs using the criterion of a fee in which the size of the fee depends on the message,” Goldberger says.

Goldberger adds that the higher permit fee might be interpreted as discouraging or limiting free speech.

“We now have an imposition of costs that are really linked to the message and to the process of communication and that does raise First Amendment questions,” Goldberger says.

City attorney Pfeiffer says the fee has little or nothing to do with constitutional rights.

“None of those regulations or rules prohibit you from staying on that sidewalk, on your two feet, and advocating what you wish to advocate. You can carry a sign, you can speak, so First Amendment rights are still flourishing in Columbus. But Columbus has also now got itself some reasonable rules and regulations for the appropriate use of public sidewalks so that all can enjoy it; all can be safe,” Pfeiffer says.

Occupy Columbus leaders says they’re discussing possible legal action against the city over Section 906.

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