New Report! Out of Control: Seattle's Flawed Response to Protests Against
the World Trade Organization
--- Political Parties to Protesters: Stay Home
ACLU Challenges Coast to Coast Trampling Of Free Speech Rights
Special Update: Government Plotted to Disrupt Peaceful Protests, Rights Groups Charge
With 30,000 journalists recording every event, political conventions are unparalleled media opportunities -- for politicians and protesters alike. The Republicans will arrive in Philadelphia the first week of August, the Democrats in Los Angeles a few weeks later. To the dismay of convention organizers and to the delight of First Amendment enthusiasts, hordes of demonstrators will follow the delegates to both cities.
The planners of the upcoming national political conventions are well aware that protests and demonstrations can divert media attention. Therefore, as they carefully plan their events, they are seeking ways to prevent the protests that have rocked conventions in the past and that enlivened the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle this past winter. To help protestors navigate their way through the upcoming demonstrations, the ACLU of Pennsylvania created a Right to Protest pocketcard.
Chicago to Seattle: Have we come full circle?
The recent police violence in Seattle during the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings reminded many people of the violent police crackdowns on protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In an infamous clash between protesters and police at the 1968 convention, Mayor Richard Daley turned a blind eye to the clubbing of innocent protesters and the chaos unleashed by blinding tear gas.
During protests at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas, protester Gary Johnson burned an American flag and was arrested for violating a Texas anti-flag desecration law. That case, Texas v. Johnson, went all the up to the U.S. Supreme Court and established the right to burn the American flag as a form of symbolic speech. The Justices stated that no matter how offensive or misguided Johnson's message in burning the flag might be, that form of expression was constitutionally protected. This decision sparked the beginning of an ongoing push in Congress for a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration.
Freedom hard to come by in Philadelphia
In a creative attempt to control and limit uninvited speech in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention, the city designated a Free speech Zone and issued an "Omnibus" special events permit. The Zone is a 40 by 190 foot staging area intended to be the only space to hold protests in the city during the convention. To use it, groups had to apply for one of 72 time slots. Each slot provides 50 minutes for a group to say its piece and exit in time for the next groups of protesters. The special events permit gave the Republican Party control of virtually all of the city's public spaces for use during the convention and gave convention organizers the right of first refusal. Thus, only groups approved by the Republicans would be able to speak publicly during the convention, except in the limited time and space provided by the Zone.
The first group to discover and challenge these rules was Unity 2000, a coalition of more than 50 protest groups planning an event with an estimated attendance of more than 10,000 people. Unity 2000 sought a permit to hold a march and rally on July 30, 2000, the even of the convention. Their request for a permit had been denied several times because the space requested, Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, had, of course, been reserved for the Republicans' use. After repeated negotiation attempts with the city failed, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Unity 2000 and a second plaintiff, the Ad Hoc Coalition on Healthcare. Shortly thereafter, permits were granted to both organizations.
Additional organizations have sought and been denied demonstration permits. They too have turned to the ACLU, which is in ongoing negotiations with the city to honor the free speech rights of all citizens. In response to an ACLU request, the Police Commissioner has promised that the police will not use pepperspray or handcuffs on nonviolent protesters.
Los Angeles Awaits
As in Philadelphia, Los Angeles city officials designated areas for protests. Democratic Convention organizers recently announced the proposed location of the protest area, far away from cameras and conventioneers. But, in a triumph for the ACLU, the First Amendment and everyone who wishes to speak out at the Democratic Convention, a federal judge struck down the plan to corral the protesters. U.S. District Judge Gary Feess said that the plan to restrict demonstrators to designated areas violated their free speech rights. Feess said that a major political convention is exactly the type of event that Americans should be allowed to attend and where they should be free to protest, without being muzzled by authorities.
The ACLU of Southern California had sued the city and its police department challenging the restrictions on protesters, on behalf of Survivors, an anti-choice youth group that plans to stage a demonstration during the convention.
This year is not the first that convention has sought to restrict protests to specific times and places. Four years ago, at the Republican Convention in San Diego, the ACLU successfully sued to have a designated protest area moved closer to the main convention site
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