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Occupy L.A. could make it easier for other groups to camp out

November 30, 2011 | 12:30 pm

Occupy LA clean
Los Angeles officials' tolerance of the illegal encampment of Occupy L.A. demonstrators for the last two months may have averted violence but it could undermine the city's authority to deter occupiers with a more controversial message, legal experts say.

A resolution by the Los Angeles City Council expressing support for the movement's goal of greater social and economic equity resulted in a de facto exemption of the demonstrators from an ordinance banning overnight camping in city parks.

But what happens if neo-Nazis or anti-immigrant demonstrators pitch tents on public land to express their political views?

FULL COVERAGE: Occupy protests

"One has to be very careful to see that the law is enforced in a neutral way," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. "If you have permitted a group on one end of the political spectrum to camp out in a public park, then a city is going to find difficult an attempt to evict a group on the other end of the spectrum from a similar kind of situation. A good lawyer is going to make something of that."

Los Angeles has declined to enforce the no-camping rule in other instances, the Occupy L.A. protesters noted in a lawsuit they filed Monday in hopes of getting a court order to block their eviction. The two previous exemptions they cited involved needy people who camped out around Exposition Park for a free health clinic and vampire movie fans allowed to sleep for several days on sidewalks of Westwood Village to get into the first showing of the "Twilight" series.

A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said government officials can set "time, place and manner" restrictions on public speech but made clear that authorities can't differentiate on the basis of the "content" of the protesters' message, said Karl Manheim, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School.

If the city "selectively applies" the no-camping ordinance, then it could run afoul of the high court's precedent requiring "content neutrality" in enforcing the law, Manheim said.


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Photo: Sanitation worker Gino Rodriguez works to clear debris left behind by Occupy L.A. protesters after Los Angeles police successfully cleared out the camp at City Hall early Wednesday. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times