Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the R.I. Center for Justice have today filed a complaint on behalf of two dozen homeless individuals to allow them to continue camping at the State House to protest the lack of adequate housing for individuals in Rhode Island.

 

The complaint supplements one filed last week by attorney Rick Corley which led to the issuance of an order temporarily barring any action against the protesters pending a court hearing tomorrow. The supplemental complaint, filed in R.I. Superior Court by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger, the Center for Justice’s Jennifer Wood, and Corley, argues that attempts to remove the campers would violate their constitutional rights as well as the state’s Homeless Bill of Rights (HBOR).

The complaint notes that any number of the plaintiffs selected the State House grounds to locate their tent because “they wish to convey a message that they are in need of and unable to access adequate shelter and they believe that the message is best conveyed by their continuing physical presence at the seat of Rhode Island government.” The suit argues that the “grounds of the State House are a traditional public forum where the Government’s ability to limit protected speech and expression is at its most constrained.”

While the notice to vacate given to the camping protesters stated that “camping/sleeping overnight at the State House grounds is prohibited,” the lawsuit points out that the State has not adopted any regulations to that effect in accordance with the R.I. Administrative Procedures Act, a law that requires state agency rules and policies affecting the public to be adopted in a process that allows for public input.

Last December, led by a state Senator and a Gubernatorial candidate, tents were set up on the State House grounds to protest the housing crisis, but all those sleeping there were allowed to stay, and did so for more than two weeks until they voluntarily left. The suit alleges that they were left alone “because they were not homeless or unhoused but acting in their capacities as politicians or housing advocates.”

Although the notice given the campers claimed that “a bed in an emergency shelter” would be provided to every person there, the suit claims that the State has not secured adequate housing for, or even been able to contact, all of them, even as officials seek to have the court eliminate the restraining order and allow them to remove or arrest the plaintiffs. In the meantime, many of the plaintiffs have been trying to work with the state to obtain adequate and appropriate shelter for their needs.

The suit argues that the State’s actions violate the protesters’ First Amendment rights to speech and petition the government, their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the HBOR, which generally bars discrimination against individuals on the basis of their housing status. The suit seeks a continued injunction to bar the state from “seizing or removing” the plaintiffs without their permission.

A hearing on the injunction request is scheduled to be heard tomorrow at 10 AM before R.I. Superior Court Judge David Cruise. A copy of the complaint filed today can be found here.

RI Center for Justice executive director Jennifer Wood said today: “The urgency of getting the plaintiffs who are staying at the State House appropriate shelter is what motivates this action. The plaintiffs have worked with the state’s lawyers to facilitate getting people who are staying at the State House shelter and it is the goal of the lawsuit to ensure that these individuals and others who are experiencing homelessness in the winter access appropriate shelter.”

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger added: “Plaintiffs in this case are individual human beings who find themselves in the most vulnerable situation in the dead of winter.  They have chosen to amplify their message of the inadequacy of housing for themselves and other unhoused individuals by presenting it at the seat of government.  The law is clear:  the government’s ability to interfere with individuals exercising their rights of free speech and to petition the government is at its most limited when that protest is at a public forum like the State House.  Instead of taking the time and fulfilling its responsibility to consider, craft and publish narrowly tailored rules limiting the interference with these most basic and fundamental rights and applicable to all, the state has chosen to target this group with arrest and seizure of their property.  We urge the State to reconsider its priorities and work with us to find safe and adequate shelter and housing for all of these people and to stop threatening them with expulsion and arrest until they do.”

Attorney Rick Corley added: “The protestors’ mere presence at the State House is intended as a symbolic statement to heighten public awareness concerning the existence of homelessness in Rhode Island. Their physical presence and perseverance to bravely remain vigilant throughout bitterly cold weather emphasize their message that appropriate housing should be a basic civil right.”

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