J. Robert Linneman and the Occupy Movement
How the Cincinnati attorney got involved
Published in 2012 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 12, 2012
Updated on October 22, 2019
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early October 2011, hundreds of protesters marched through the heart of downtown Cincinnati, in a stream stretching for blocks. Carrying posters with statements like “My voice should be louder than your dollar,” they walked amid chants of “This is what democracy looks like.”
It was the first march of Occupy Cincinnati.
“I was originally just included on a Facebook invite,” says business attorney J. Robert Linneman, who had looked into getting a park permit for the event. “It was a group of people who were getting together and trying to make something happen. I felt what they were doing was worthwhile and thought I had some ability to help them.”
That first occupation started in Lytle Park near Cincinnati’s central business district, less than a mile from Linneman’s office at Santen & Hughes. “It was electric,” says Linneman of joining the march. “[There were] people who had strong feelings and strong beliefs but who were completely open to the prospect of new ideas and synergies between all of themselves.
“So often, these days, that kind of dialogue takes place only in cyberspace,” he says. “When people were sitting all together in the same park next to one another, having to engage one another, it felt much more human.”
After staying at their final destination, Fountain Square, for 24 hours, Linneman says protest organizers found out another event had been planned there. “So they very considerately, I thought, packed up and moved it on down the street” to Piatt Park, he says. “They stayed the night under the watchful eye of dozens of Cincinnati police officers.”
As the protesters’ numbers grew and they occupied the park a second night, citations came—Piatt Park officially closes to the public at 10 p.m. Linneman filed a lawsuit against the city of Cincinnati in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio, and nearly two weeks after the occupation began, officers started arresting protesters. Linneman, who witnessed some of the late-night arrests, served as counsel in morning arraignments.
He was the first attorney to file a lawsuit on behalf of an Occupy group, says co-counsel Jennifer Kinsley. “Rob single-handedly established and maintained contact with other volunteer lawyers around the country and supplied his research and pleadings,” says Kinsley. “[His] case served as the prototype for similar successful lawsuits in Cleveland, Nashville and several smaller cities on the West Coast.”
Linneman says the city, in previous years, had granted permission for a private sponsor to build structures and create an elaborate Christmas display at a park, at all hours of the day, among other examples. “Our argument was that the rules which provide for that issuance of a permit granted so much discretion to the parks department, that the lack of discretion rendered it unconstitutional,” says Linneman. “It meant essentially that the parks department could favor one group that had a certain message, while disfavoring another group.
“If you give a government officer unbridled discretion to give permission or not give permission, you create constitutional risks because you put too much judgment in the officer; in this case the park director,” he says.
A day after the filing, U.S. District Chief Judge Susan Dlott actually attended an Occupy Cincinnati general assembly meeting in order to hold a settlement conference with all parties present. “I thought it was fascinating just because in all the mediations and settlement conferences and all of the court proceedings that have taken place in my career, I’ve never had a judge literally leave the courthouse in order to ensure that the parties connected and communicated openly,” says Linneman.
“We didn’t settle the case then, of course,” he adds, with a laugh. “It ended up taking much longer.”
Nearly six months later, in March 2012, the city and the protesters reached an agreement: If the city dropped all charges and fines (in excess of $30,000) against protesters, Linneman’s clients would drop the federal suit against Cincinnati. Protestors agreed to no longer erect encampments, and a public space, available 24 hours a day, was set aside for public protest.
“We felt it was a triumphant moment,” says Linneman.