South Carolina lawmakers are scrambling to block the just-resumed Occupy Columbia protest from continuing its encampment on State House grounds.
The SC House Judiciary Committee held a specially called meeting Thursday to take up one piece of legislation that it swiftly passed — a ban on camping on the State House lawn, including sleeping, building campfires and cooking.
Violators would face up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $100.
The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously, heads to the House floor next week for what is expected to be speedy passage. Lastly, it will head to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk for her promised signature. “We don’t believe the State House should be an unsanitary campground,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
Meanwhile, Occupy protesters returned to the State House grounds Wednesday after the expiration of emergency rules that barred overnight camping. Some protesters said Thursday they will continue to camp at the State House until permanent rules are put in place.
That’s likely to happen.
Democrats raised questions during Thursday’s committee meeting, attempting to slow the bill’s progress. “Why isn’t camping a legitimate form of freedom of expression?” asked state Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter.
But state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said camping raises health and safety hazards. “Some level of decorum is expected on State House grounds,” he added.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, said he fell asleep on the State House grounds about 10 years ago and was awakened by a security guard who told him sleeping isn’t allowed on the grounds.
Quinn added camping is equally inappropriate. “Taking up residency on State House grounds isn’t a protest to me.”
A handful of protesters, who attended Thursday’s meeting, expressed disappointment with the proposal’s advancement.
“We’ve had no problems,” said Melissa Harmon, a protestor from Columbia. “There haven’t been any sanitary or health issues.”
Since Oct. 15, protesters have been a constant on the State House lawn.
In November, Haley imposed a 6 p.m. curfew, claiming the protestors were fouling the grounds. Later that month, 19 protestors were arrested for violating the curfew. Some filed suit, saying the state had violated their First Amendments rights.
After a federal judge issued an injunction barring the arrest of protesters, emergency rules to ban overnight camping were drafted by the Budget and Control Board in December. However, those rules expired at midnight Sunday, giving a half-dozen protesters a chance to set up their tents and roll out their sleeping bags again.
Even if the bill becomes law - as is widely anticipated - Harmon said it won’t be the end of the Occupy movement. The protest will continue elsewhere, she predicted. “The idea is to take this idea and keep growing it.”