Athens County Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace began reading his verdict in the first trial of the 70 students arrested in Baker Center on Feb. 1, then stopped.
“I see you’re all flipping to the last page, which is exactly what I didn’t want,” he said.
Attorney Pat McGee showed defendant Michael Mayberry the page and patted him on the back. Someone in the audience gasped.
Grace found Mayberry not guilty of trespassing at the Monday hearing after a bench trial last week. Mayberry was arrested at a Feb. 1 demonstration on the fourth floor Baker Center lobby to make Ohio University a sanctuary campus. Other students arrested with Mayberry in Baker Center have already entered plea deals, and some are awaiting trial.
Grace’s verdict centered on the university’s decision in 2014 to keep Baker Center open after hours to allow a demonstration about the Michael Brown case to continue. That decision established Baker Center as a public forum, and the prosecution didn’t present enough evidence to prove there was a “compelling government interest” to infringe upon the protester’s freedom of speech, Grace said.
“There was no evidence in this case that there was a sudden change in policy,” Grace said.
The OU Police Department previously argued that the presence of protesters in Baker Center blocked entry and exit to the building and created an “unsafe" situation that would make it difficult to evacuate. OUPD Chief Andrew Powers and Athens Police Department Chief Tom Pyle were present at the hearing.
Many of the arrested protesters who also pleaded not guilty attended the hearing. Bobby Walker, one of the students who organized the demonstration, smiled with her hand over her heart after Grace read the verdict.
Mayberry’s mother clapped the loudest after Grace read the verdict. “Thank you,” she said, and began to cry.
McGee said Grace made a tough decision because the police and prosecutor argued they needed to arrest the students to maintain order.
“The student center has been used for assemblies for nine years, so if they’re going to (place restrictions on its use) they have to make it clear to everyone,” he said. “So I think it was a win for free speech."
He hugged Mayberry and Mayberry’s mother after the hearing.
“I was almost ready to dance a jig, but the old knees aren’t up for it,” McGee said.