CONCORD — Occupy Manchester protesters who camped out in Veterans Park as part of the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protest in October 2011 asked the Supreme Court Wednesday to toss out their curfew and criminal trespass convictions, arguing their protest was constitutionally protected free speech.
The court's five jurists vigorously questioned attorney Lawrence A. Vogelman, who said he proudly represented the 22 convicted.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa L. Wolford said the protesters didn't need to camp overnight in Veterans Park to get their message across, that they could have accomplished it during the 16 hours the park is open to the public.
Vogelman said the occupiers provided housing for the homeless, clothing, food, hygiene and took care of the park.
Justice Carol Ann Conboy questioned how they were to convey the message that they were 24/7 and provide housing to the homeless "if you made them go away."
Conboy, who noted the occupiers provided portable toilets and security, wondered if the constitutionality of the ordinance depended on what the people did to violate it. In other words, she said, would a group of rowdy people who trashed the park be in violation of the curfew?
The protesters are appealing the 21-page ruling of Judge William Lyons, who sits in 9th Circuit Court, Manchester District Division. Lyons rejected the group's argument that they were exercising their state and U.S. constitutional rights of free speech and assembly and that their conduct was a protected right. He said free speech, under the state's constitution, "is not absolute."
Vogelman told the jurists Wednesday that Lyons misunderstood the message the group was trying to deliver. "Wasn't that your clients' fault?" asked Associate Justice Gary Hicks.
Vogelman said it wasn't. He explained that the protesters consisted of a disparate group which included members of the Tea Party, Free Staters, anarchists and veterans, all of whom showed they could live together in a democratic community.
Associate Justice James P. Bassett asked why they didn't just set up tents outside the park. Vogelman said they could have, but then they would have just violated a different city ordinance.
Conboy pointed out the first two nights of the protest, the occupiers were undisturbed by police. Vogelman said she was correct and added that he did not know why Mayor Ted Gatsas and aldermen later had them arrested.
Associate Justice Robert J. Lynn asked if Manchester police had to add extra patrols because of the occupiers. They didn't, Vogelman said.
Hicks wanted to know if the protestors believed their actions were legal, why did they stop?
Vogelman explained that his clients, 22 residents convicted of violating the city's 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. park curfew or of criminal trespass, are "law-abiding people. They didn't believe they were violating the law because they believed what they were doing was constitutionally protected."
Once they were arrested, however, Vogelman said they believed they could no longer continue their overnight protest in the park.
Three convicted of criminal trespass appealed their case to Hillsborough County Superior Court where they were convicted again. In that case, Assistant Hillsborough County Attorney Charlene Dulac told jurors if they didn't find the defendants guilty, it would lead to the parks becoming centers for overnight drinking, drugging and camping, with violence likely.
Catherine Bailey of Manchester was one of about a dozen protesters who attended Wednesday's 30-minute hearing.
"I think it went really well," she said afterward.