Updated at 5:23 p.m.
The National Park Service alerted Occupy D.C. demonstrators today of its intent to begin enforcing a no-camping rule starting on Monday, and also filed notice (PDF) with the federal judge overseeing the protesters' case against the agency about the warning this afternoon.
Attorneys for the Occupy D.C. demonstrators and the U.S. Department of the Interior are due in court Jan. 31 to argue over a preliminary injunction motion. The demonstrators have sued to keep the park service from removing any tents or property from McPherson Square, which they claim would be a violation of their constitutional rights since the items are part of their protest.
U.S. District Judges James Boasberg issued a minute order in December requiring the agency to give the court a 24-hour notice before attempting to enforce the no-sleeping rule. In the absence of such notice, the agency has been barred from interfering with the site, except in case of an emergency.
Several hours after the government notified the court of its warning, Boasberg issued a new minute order finding that the park service had complied with the previous order and that Park Police could “begin enforcing the Park Service's anti-camping regulations, including arresting those persons in McPherson Square who are in violation of those regulations and seizing for temporary impoundment their tents and other possessions.”
The Jan. 31 hearing will address the question of whether Park Police can destroy or remove tents that belong to people who are complying with the no-camping rule, Boasberg wrote.
Earlier this week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee called National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis to testify about the agency’s handling of the protest. Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and other committee members had pressed Jarvis to explain why U.S. Park Police had yet to enforce the no-camping rule when they were aware that demonstrators were sleeping on the site.
Jarvis responded that the agency had discretion in deciding how to enforce the no-camping rule, and that police had been trying to work with the protesters to get compliance while also upholding their First Amendment rights.
Washington solo practitioner Jeffrey Light, who is representing the protesters, said in a phone interview this afternoon that he wasn’t surprised by the notice issued by the park service today. “If somebody is violating the law, that’s not what the lawsuit is about,” Light said. At issue in the lawsuit, he said, is “what about people who aren’t doing something illegal.”
The protesters, in their court briefs, have not contested the legality of the no-camping rule.
A park service spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment this afternoon.