PORTLAND — The controversy over whether the city should allow Occupy Maine protesters to remain in Lincoln Park moves to City Hall tonight.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee will hear from the public and city staff members before making a recommendation to the council for its special meeting next Wednesday. Today’s meeting begins at 5 p.m.

At issue: the First Amendment rights of the protesters versus the city’s responsibility to maintain public safety and allow other people to use the park, where Occupy Maine’s encampment is entering its third month.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, police issued eight criminal-trespass orders to people at the park for minor violations such as drinking in public. But by late Wednesday police had made at least one arrest and were called to break up a large scale fight.

Ernest Weidul, 51, no address, was charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, after he was refused entry to another person’s tent around 9:45 p.m. Weidul displayed a knife during the confrontation.

Lt. Robert Ridge said five police officers were sent to the encampment shortly after 11 p.m. to break up a fight. No other details were available.

On Tuesday, the protesters filed a petition that seeks the city’s permission for the occupation to continue and includes a list of actions they would take to address city officials’ concerns, such as limiting their occupation to a portion of the park, removing flammable materials, limiting the number of overnight occupants and requiring that tents be at least 10 feet apart.

The protest is violating several city ordinances, such as prohibitions against sleeping overnight in public parks and loitering in parks after they are closed. Lincoln Park is closed from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. daily.

City officials have been reluctant to enforce the ordinances because protesters have argued that their actions are a form of political speech protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Occupy Maine started its demonstration in Monument Square in early October, and at the city’s request moved to Lincoln Park. As the weeks wore on, the encampment grew to encompass most of the park between Congress, Pearl, Federal and Franklin streets.

A series of arrests and incidents of violence prompted city officials to do a walk-through inspection of the park on Nov. 17. Several code violations were cited, prompting a meeting at which protesters told city officials they would seek members’ approval to apply for a waiver from the city.

The public safety issues have caused several city councilors to look for ways to limit the occupation to a daytime-only protest.

The occupation has evolved from a protest to a permanent settlement, said City Councilor John Coyne, a member of the Public Safety Committee.

“I don’t favor them sleeping there at all,” he said. “If they want to use it as a place to start their day off, that’s fine. But they are damaging a great open space.”

The council must form a policy that would apply to any protest group, regardless of the politics, said Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the committee.

He said he’s inclined to allow the city manager to waive the rules for after-hour protests, but not to allow overnight camping.

Councilor David Marshall, who also serves on the Public Safety Committee, said he hopes the council can develop a solution that addresses public safety issues while protecting the protesters’ free-speech rights.

He said he likes the group’s transparent decision-making process, but questions whether the group has a purpose other than occupying Lincoln Park.

Councilor John Anton said the hearing on Occupy Maine will be akin to the hearings the Council holds on liquor licenses.

Although Occupy Maine is in violation of city ordinances, he said, the First Amendment trumps municipal law. He said the council should identify any aspects of city ordinances that may conflict with Occupy Maine’s First Amendment rights and instruct the city’s staff not to enforce aspects of those ordinances.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman said the occupation is consuming the resources of the Police Department and other city employees, and it’s time for the city and the group to negotiate a plan for the protesters to leave the park.

John Branson, an attorney for Occupy Maine, said the group, to date, has received spoken waivers from city officials to allow the occupation to continue. He said a written waiver — even with conditions — would be welcomed by the group because it would make it easier to create a safer environment.

Branson said Occupy Maine would rather work cooperatively with the city than use the court system to preserve its First Amendment rights.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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Twitter: @TomBellPortland