TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) appeared in the Chancery Division of Mercer County Superior Court yesterday afternoon to stop the State from enforcing unconstitutional rules that violate the free speech rights of the Occupy Trenton protesters. The ACLU-NJ argued that the State illegally confiscated the laptops, coolers and other property belonging to the protesters on October 14 as a means to chill their free speech.
“The state cannot arbitrarily create restrictive policies just because it does not like how people are using a public space,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Laws must be created pursuant to proper process, not created by executive fiat.”
The rules at issue were developed and enforced only after protesters first descended on Veterans Park on State Street on Oct. 6 with blankets, laptops, a small generator, coolers of food and tarps for rain. In the past, other groups have been permitted to use tables, canopies and other items that the State has prohibited Occupy Trenton from using.
On Oct. 13, Raymond Zawacki, Deputy Commissioner for Veteran’s Affairs in New Jersey’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, issued an edict restricting any camping or picnicking items from the park. The next day, the State Police confiscated most of the protesters’ property, including their computers, coolers, the generator and their protest signs.
During the hearing, ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Bennet Zurofsky argued the state cannot inhibit speech activities simply because it doesn’t like the aesthetics. Zurofsky also pointed out that picnicking - including with items like coolers and chairs - is just the kind of activity for which parks were designed. The Attorney General’s office argued in court that the State can make up whatever rules it wishes regarding its property and that any “unattended” property should be considered “abandoned.” The State has essentially taken the position that property, including protest signs, is “unattended” if it is not within arm’s length of an individual. Indeed, the State seized protestors’ property despite the fact that the protestors are within a few feet of their items.
The ACLU-NJ asked the court to impose a temporary restraining order to prevent the State from infringing upon the protestors’ fundamental rights. The judge is expected to rule in the next few days.