NASHVILLE (CN) – A newspaper reporter, two teachers and a minister are among dozens of Occupy Nashville protesters who say their constitutional rights were violated when they were arrested at a public plaza across the street from the state Capitol. Two federal lawsuits followed, both decrying violations of the 1st and 14th Amendments, and one claiming assault and excessive force.
Occupy Nashville and six individuals sued Gov. Bill Haslam, Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security William Gibbons, and Commissioner of General Services Steven Cates in one complaints; Robert Keppler III sued the same defendants and a Tennessee Highway Patrol lieutenant in the other.
Two weeks after Occupy Nashville began on Oct. 7, the city enacted two laws which effectively prevent groups from assembling at “The Plaza,” a public site where groups have assembled and governors have been inaugurated for decades.
There were few limitations governing the Plaza before Oct. 27.
Tennessee Highway Patrol officers, dressed in black, began arresting protesters less than 24 hours after the new laws took effect.
“The old rules were amended by fiat without notice, comment, approval by the Attorney General and reporter or publications by the Secretary of State,” Occupy Nashville says in its complaint. “The new rules which purport to be of immediate applicability were posted on the plaza in the afternoon of October 27, 2011. These new rules were then enforced on October 28. No emergency requiring the promulgation of new rules existed.”
Occupy Nashville says the new rules “unconstitutionally limit access by the public to a forum universally accepted to be an area protected for the speech of the governed.”
The six individual plaintiffs say that on the first night of arrests they were taken by bus to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Criminal Justice Center, where a judicial commissioner ordered their release for lack of probable cause.
They say the state troopers held them for several more hours, and when they were finally released they found their personal belongings had been stored in an empty garbage bin in the Plaza garage, and that some property had been destroyed.
The plaintiffs say 72 Tennessee Highway Patrol officers were arrested about two dozen protesters that night, including “Nashville Scene” reporter Jonathan Meador and a woman who was not even part of the protests, but was taking photographs nearby.
Robert Charles Keppler III, a native of Louisiana, says he was in town to help his son, a U.S. Army veteran returning from duty in Afghanistan. Keppler, who is disabled and uses a cane to walk, was sitting at the protest with a sign and his son’s military dress uniform. He says Highway Patrolmen zip-tied his hands and ordered him to get up.
When he could not, Keppler says, they dragged him across the Plaza, “forced their fingers in his nostrils to pull his head back,” and dropped him facedown on the concrete.
Keppler sued Highway Patrol Lt. Preston Donaldson as well as the high-ranking state officials, saying, “The actions of defendants Haslam, Gibbons, Cates and Donaldson constitute a civil conspiracy calculated with malice to deprive plaintiff and other similarly situated individuals of their clearly defined constitutional rights to peacefully assemble and express non-violent free speech.”
Keppler seeks damages for assault and battery, unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, illegal search and seizure, constitutional violations, and violations of Tennessee’s Uniform Procedures Act.
Both lawsuits challenge the curfew and permit requirements imposed by the Department of General Services.
Occupy Nashville is one of many offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began Sept. 17 in New York, to protest corporate greed and corporate and government corruption. The Occupy movement has inspired protests in more than 70 cities and 600 communities across the United States. Roughly 3,000 people have been arrested.