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A federal judge on Monday promised a ruling within two days on Occupy Augusta's request for a court order allowing the activists to remain in a park near the Maine State House without a permit.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen said during the 1 1/2-hour hearing she would rule by the end of Wednesday on whether to issue an order barring the Capitol Police from requiring a permit for the activists' "tent city" in Capitol Park. Activists, who asked the judge to issue a temporary restraining order, say they have a constitutional right to maintain a presence in the park, where they've been since Oct. 15.
In the meantime, "everything's the same," Brenda Kielty, a special assistant to Attorney General William Schneider, said after the hearing. Both sides are expected to file updated briefs to the court in advance of the judge's ruling.
Last week, activists and police agreed to a standstill on the continued occupation of the state-owned park until the judge could issue a ruling. Protesters agreed to not add to their encampment and police agreed to take no action to evict them. Kielty said there was no indication either side would change its position after Monday's hearing.
Attorneys for the state told the judge that the Occupy group has no legal standing. They said Capitol Police, who are overseen by the state Department of Public Safety, have a duty to require a permit to protect public safety and in response to other members of the public who feel they can't use the park.
The state's brief also cited the potential of crimes and violence, which have occurred in other Occupy sites including Portland's. In Augusta, police on Saturday charged a man with criminal threatening in Capitol Park. Police said a 27-year-old Augusta man who goes by the single name Jarody allegedly threatened another camper with a sledgehammer last Thursday.
On Monday afternoon, the state fire marshal's office said a homemade A-frame tent was intentionally set on fire at Occupy Augusta. No one was in the encampment at the time of the fire. The tent had not been lived in for more than a week.
Occupy claims it is exercising constitutionally protected rights of free speech and assembly by keeping an encampment in Capitol Park.
"Clearly, this is expressive speech," said the group's attorney, Lynne Williams.
Williams maintains that the permit requirement is unconstitutional because it is too broad and allows too much discretion. She also took issue with the state's camping regulations as they apply to Capitol Park, saying they have not gone through proper procedures before adoption and therefore do not have the force of law.
Monday's hearing came a day after about 50 demonstrators from churches marched several blocks from a Unitarian Universalist church to the park. Some of the clergy participating in the march said Occupy protesters deserved credit for drawing attention to economic equality issues raised by occupy members, who claim that too much of the nation's wealth is in the hands of too few.
In Portland, Occupy members have offered to change the regulations under which they maintain an encampment in the city. In an amended petition filed Monday, they're offering to get liability insurance and to limit the number of people sleeping overnight. City Council takes up the matter Wednesday.
In Bangor, Occupy has complied with a request to vacate city library space, but moved their tents to an adjacent park. City Council plans to take up the matter Tuesday night.