PORTLAND — In November 2008, Michele Darr took to the steps of the state capitol to protest the deployment of Oregon National Guard troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It became a round-the-clock vigil. She fasted, lit candles, drew up signs and talked to people.
She was soon joined by others. Eventually, a group of legislators who set rules for the capitol grounds asked her to leave.
Darr refused. And when the building’s public hours ended at 11 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2008, she was cited by the Oregon State Police for second-degree criminal trespass. Darr still refused to move, and she was cited again.
The Oregon Supreme Court this week ruled that Darr’s protest was not protected by the First Amendment and, despite a good argument for allowing protests generally, the capitol steps themselves fall under the aegis of the capitol grounds rules committee, called the Legislative Administration Committee.
The rules that force people to leave at 11 p.m. aren’t targeted at one group or type of speech, the justices ruled, and the committee is allowed to issue content-neutral, speech-neutral regulations and laws.
The protesters came away with one victory. The justices found that they should be allowed to ask the chairs of the committee about their role in enforcing the rules on the protesters.
From that testimony, the justices reasoned, the protesters could learn whether they were in fact targeted or whether the restrictions were based on time and place.
“A good argument can be made that the Legislature should permit such vigils as part of the public debate over contested state policies,” the justices ruled.
“The question here, however, is whether the Oregon Constitution bars the legislature from limiting use of the capitol steps for any purpose.”
The justices found that, in such narrow terms, the protesters’ speech rights were not protected.
“The fact that expression is protected does not mean that it is exempt from content-neutral, speech-neutral laws and regulations,” they ruled.