After previously saying the court should decide the fate of the 70 people arrested for trespassing during a demonstration in Baker Center, Ohio University Police Chief Andrew Powers requested Wednesday the charges be dropped.
Powers said in a statement he still believes the Feb. 1 protest was unsafe and he made the right decision in ordering the arrests. He is asking the prosecutor to drop the charges “out of fairness to the other similarly situated defendants” after Athens Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace found Michael Mayberry not guilty Monday in the first trial of the students arrested in Baker Center. The final decision on whether to drop the charges falls to Athens City Prosecutor Tracy Meek.
At Mayberry’s hearing on Monday, Grace said the university’s previous decision to keep Baker Center open after hours during a demonstration about the case of Michael Brown in 2014 established Baker Center as a designated public forum, giving the protesters privilege to occupy the space. OUPD’s arrest of the protesters and the prosecutor’s decision to file charges against them amounted to a violation of their First Amendment rights, Grace said.
Powers and university officials said in statements after the arrests that the protest blocked entry and exit to the building and would make it difficult to evacuate the building, creating an unsafe situation. Grace ruled the demonstration did not block entry and exit to the area enough to justify Mayberry’s
“Pedestrians passed Michael Mayberry while he was speaking,” he wrote. “Pizzas were delivered by a delivery person in the second video.”
Pat McGee, Mayberry’s attorney, did not argue that Powers ordered the arrests because he disagreed with their message. He instead argued that Powers acted rashly by giving the protesters an ultimatum instead of working to address specific safety concerns and that this amounted to a violation of free speech by the state.
In turn, prosecutors argued that finding Mayberry not guilty would set a precedent that would limit local police’s ability to address similar situations in the future.
“To stray from established precedent that protesters may be asked to leave an area when safety is at issue would have extraordinary implications on the ability of law enforcement — and the University — to maintain civility and order,” Meek said.
The university did not respond to an email asking whether it will drop the code of conduct sanctions against students. All students arrested at the Feb. 1 demonstration were charged with violating university policies.
OU interim President David Descutner said he supports Powers’ decision to request the charges be dropped and said the university is drafting policies for “best practices” moving forward.
“That process is underway and we expect to have an updated policy soon that not only protects the first amendment rights of all but also is consistent with the court’s ruling and with the values of Ohio University,” Descutner wrote in a news release.
Asked if the university will be changing its policies for use of space, OU spokesman Dan Pittman said the university is assessing the judge’s decision and declined to comment further.
In his statement Wednesday, Powers thanked the city prosecutor and the other law enforcement agencies that assisted his department Feb. 1.
“Most importantly I am grateful we live in a country that values due process and has safe, civil means for reviewing the actions of government,” he wrote.