Judge Rules In Favor Of County In Protest Camp Closure

Late in the summer of 2013, Lane County closed a protest camp in the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza leading to one of many recent debates on the nature of free speech and whether a government agency can shut it down.

In a Dec. 15 ruling on a motion to dismiss, Municipal Court Judge Karen Stenard writes that the closure in this instance was not unconstitutional under Oregon law. She writes there were “legitimate health and safety concerns.” Activists disputed those concerns at the time of the closure and in the months afterward.

The camp was made up of SLEEPS (Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to SLEEP) protesters, members of a related group called AWAKE and other unhoused campers, and the encampment sought to call attention to the plight of the unhoused, as have several related camps in the area, such as Whoville.

Brian Michaels, attorney for Michael Gannon and Michael McFadden, who were arrested for returning to the plaza along with Hedin Manus Brugh, says, “It’s sad when politics trumps the rule of law.”

Michaels cites the email sent to the County Commission by Lane County Public Health Officer, Dr. Patrick Luedtke, which Stenard discusses in her ruling. That email calls the residents courteous and dogs well-behaved and it refers to the smell of urine and the “occasional smell of feces.” Luedtke wrote that “the level of disease transmission risk has exceeded my level of comfort. It would be beneficial at this time to thoroughly clean the area in order to best protect the current occupants as well as other citizens.” He then suggests the area be cleaned on a rotating schedule if occupied again.

The judge cites a nearby temporary free speech area that was given as an alternative. It was small square drawn in a nearby gravel parking lot. Stenard writes that it’s unclear if its presence was known to all the activists but calls it a “reasonable alternative.”

Michaels says he subpoenaed Pete Sorenson, Betty Taylor, Claire Syrett, then-county administrator Alicia Hayes and Commissioner Pat Farr, all of whom who he says “testified that things were going fairly well, with only minor problems.”

The Lane County Commission voted 4-1 to close the camp on Sept. 4, 2013, and while Stenard upheld that decision in her ruling, she took members of the County Commission to task for their statements in their meeting, specifically, she writes, the court was troubled by “the statements of commissioners which evidence a belief that free speech should be balanced against a local government’s desire for economic growth and development.”

She cites then-commission chair Sid Leiken’s “alarming lack of understanding about the three branches of government and how the separation of powers ensures fair protection and that an independent judiciary is central to this concept and is a founding principle of our system of government at the administration of justice.”

However, she also writes that the County Commission weighed its risks and benefits of the closure and “clearly” took it seriously. EW asked Lane County for comment but most commissioners were out this week, according to spokesperson Anne Marie Levis.

A trial date for McFadden and Gannon of Feb. 26 has been set, with no date scheduled as of yet for Brugh.

Lane County has since done work to improve its adversarial relationship with local activists for the unhoused, offering county land for homeless rest stops.