UPDATED 9/19/11 1:45 p.m.

What started as a topless protest in Waikiki has become a test of free speech rights in Honolulu.

UPDATE Two University of Hawaii students on Monday were arraigned in Oahu District Court on charges that they protested in Waikiki without a permit.1

The Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office was granted a continuance on the case, so the Meiers were not required to enter a plea at this point.

Jamie and Tess Meier, both Maui residents attending UH Manoa, were cited by the Honolulu Police Department Aug. 21 on Kalakaua Avenue, where they held signs and circulated a petition advocating for gender equality as part of a nationwide protest, “National Go Topless Day.” Neither was wearing a top during their demonstration.

“We are appalled that this close to APEC, with hundreds and perhaps thousands of protesters, and the eyes of the world on Honolulu, that HPD still does not understand or respect the rights of protesters,” said Laurie A. Temple, a staff Attorney for the ACLU of Hawaii, which is also representing the Meiers.

  1. An earlier version said the Meiers had pleaded not guilty.

A First Amendment Issue

The Meiers were charged with “failing to obtain a parks department permit for meetings or gatherings or other similar activity held by organizations, associations or groups.”

The ACLU’s Temple said, “We believe that amendment is unconstitutional as applied and on its face. What it prohibits is any two people going into a park with any message that they would like to express. In this case, HPD simply did not like their message and chose to shut down their protest under an unlawful ordinance.”

“Just because the message was toplessness doesn’t mean the police can shut down protests based upon the message,” said Winter.

“We think that it’s absolutely horrible that the state would choose to cite them for their protest in Waikiki,” said Matthew Winter, an attorney with Davis Levin Livingston, which is representing the Meiers. “They have absolutely every right to protest. They were doing so lawfully.”

UPDATE The police department declined to comment on the case, saying it was in the hands of the prosecutor.

The couple had previously held a similar protest in Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore, but they were not cited by police.

Message of Gender Equality

“Our message really is gender equality,” said Tess Meier. “Our mode really is topless rights for women. Men can do it, women should have the right as well. It’s such a basic right. Like Matt said, the police basically didn’t like what we had to say, didn’t like the way we were doing it, and just found whatever they could to get us off the street.”

The Meiers’ attorneys believe the charges against their clients will not stand.

Temple expressed concern that what happened to the Meiers could be indicative of what the police may do in response to free speech protests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu in November.

“HPD does have a history of violating protesters rights,” she said. “The Asian Development Bank about 10 years ago as well as a few years ago at Honolulu Hale when they violated the rights of homeless protesters.”

Last week, in an email to Civil Beat regarding APEC protests, HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, said, “HPD respects the right of the public to demonstrate and voice their views, and we make no distinction as to the purpose, message or intent of any group. At several locations, there will be a secure zone and an area for the general public.”

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