Protester removal: Boar's Head Inn claims trespassing

by Lisa Provence 

Protesters along the street in Charlottesville are not an unusual sight. Out on U.S. 250 west in front of the upscale Boar's Head Inn entrance, demonstrators are more unusual-- and so was the response of the University of Virginia Foundation-owned hostelry when Dominion Virginia Power held its shareholders meeting there May 12.

Chris Walters, 57, a carpenter and environmentalist, had gotten an email about the People’s Alliance for Clean Energy rally on the morning of Dominion's meeting, and he decided to demonstrate his disdain for mountaintop removal, a type of strip mining that some consider an environmental nightmare because of the damage it does. The protesters hoped to sway shareholders going into the meeting to consider other types of renewable energy and to nix more nuclear power plants.

Instead, the Boar's Head Inn called the cops, and insisted that the demonstrators were on private land and had to leave, according to Walters.

"When the police started asking people to move to the other side of the road," says Walters, "I started walking away." He headed west, and says he was standing between the white stripe of the road and a guardrail when an Albemarle police officer allegedly said, "You have to leave; it's private property," says Walters. "I said, no it isn't. He said yes it is." And when Walters refused to leave the side of the road, he was arrested for trespassing.

Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead is incredulous that police would arrest a protester on the side of the road. "There are a preponderance of cases out there," he says. "As long as it's not dangerous or obstructing traffic, he can be there. The officer didn't cite safety. He said the Boar's Head Inn wanted him gone."

"We can arrest in the public right-of-way if it's obstructing traffic," agrees Albemarle police spokesman Sergeant Darrell Byers. "Sidewalks would be public, and the side of the road would be a public right-of-way. I believe some of the protesters were on private property."

Albemarle police were already on the scene and working with Dominion, according to Byers, who declines to identify who that was. He also says someone from Boar's Head Inn would have had to ask for the ouster of the enviro-protesters.

"As far as I know, we had nothing to do with that arrest," says Boar's Head Inn public information person Pat Burnette.

Jane Foster, 86, has been to dozens of demonstrations, and she thought it was bad enough the 40 or so protesters had to be on busy U.S. 250 rather than in front of the Inn.

"The police insisted we move across the street," she says. "You could see they'd never had to handle anything like this before."

Both Foster and Walters say the officers were very polite.
The Rutherford Institute will represent Walters when he goes to court July 19 for trespassing, and it's not the first time the civil rights organization has defended an alleged trespasser on First Amendment grounds.

In 2005, then House of Delegates candidate Rich Collins was arrested when he refused to leave Shoppers World, where he was handing out leaflets in front of Whole Foods. On appeal, Collins' trespassing conviction was overturned, but he had less luck with changing Virginia law to protect free speech on private property that acts as a public forum.

"Even if he was on private property," says Collins, "it was an important enough event to warn the public. I find it unfortunate Virginia law doesn't protect free speech on private property that's open to the public."

“Chris Walters has a right to engage in political expression, and his arrest is an egregious violation of the First Amendment," decries Whitehead. "The fact that Walters was arrested for exercising his free speech rights in Charlottesville, a city that prides itself on being the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned America as an empire of liberty, is a sad reflection on how we value freedom today.”

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