ACLU sues city for protest permit denial

     Cheri Honkala, national coordinator for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, speaks with reporters outside City Hall (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Cheri Honkala, national coordinator for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, speaks with reporters outside City Hall (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Five weeks after Philadelphia officials denied an anti-poverty group’s request to march during the Democratic National Convention, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has sued the city in federal court, claiming the permit denial violates their free-speech rights and asking a judge to order city officials to allow the march.

    In May, city officials rejected the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s application for a permit to march down Broad Street on July 25, the first day of the four-day convention. At the time, a mayoral spokeswoman said it conflicted with another scheduled event and marches wouldn’t be allowed on Broad Street during rush hour. The city later relented on the Broad Street objection but held firm to their rush-hour ban.

    But the First Amendment applies all the time, even during rush hour, ACLU deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper said.

    “We think it’s ridiculous that there are five hours in every weekday that you can’t use the city streets to express your free-speech rights,” Roper said, referring to the two hours each morning and three hours each afternoon city officials defined as rush hour. “They close the streets all the time (on weekdays) for celebrations and parades and the pope. But not for protests? We think that’s not OK.”

    The complaint, filed this morning in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, asks for an expedited hearing, with the DNC just a month away.

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    City officials said the Law Department is still reviewing the complaint and they do not have a comment at this time.

    In the filing, Roper lists more than a dozen examples of street closures approved for events that closed Broad Street and surrounding Center City streets during weekday rush hours.

    “The city has not explained why it will allow Center City streets to be closed for hours or days for these nonpolitical purposes but cannot allow a moving political protest on any Center City street from the hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.,” Roper wrote in the complaint. “It appears the city favors block parties and other celebrations over protest, or that it favors commercial or prestigious speakers over those less powerful. Either rationale is content-based and prohibited by the First Amendment.”

    “This is not a written policy anywhere in the city,” Roper added. Further, police routinely look the other way when unpermitted groups protest or march in city streets during weekday rush hours, so long as they commit no crimes, she said.

    Of 19 applications for permits, it was one of three denied, according to city records. Also rejected: The Equality Coalition for Bernie Sanders’ request for 200 marchers to parade from City Hall down Broad Street to the stadium area between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. July 25; and Global Zero’s request to demonstrate every day of the convention at FDR Park and Marconi Plaza with an inflatable rocket to call for an end to nuclear weapons. Seven other permits were approved; seven remain pending; and two were withdrawn because their locations are National Park Service land, according to city records.

    The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s March for Our Lives, which organizer Cheri Honkala expected would draw 500 marchers, was to start at City Hall at 3 p.m. and move down Broad Street to FDR Park, near the Wells Fargo Center where the DNC will occur.

    Honkala already has said her group will march with or without a permit. And while she was happy the ACLU is championing her group’s rights, she worried about damage already done.

    “It doesn’t even matter if they (city officials) relent, because they’ve created fear,” Honkala said. “If I’m a mother from Wisconsin who planned to come march, now I’m going to think twice before I get on that bus to come march because I’m worried about trouble.”

    Besides the march, Honkala’s group also plans to organize a tent city in North Philadelphia where poor people can camp during the DNC, hold “reality tours” for reporters and others to see poverty first-hand, and stage a “fart-in,” in which participants will surround the DNC after a bean supper and let loose “as a final expression of what we think of this whole process.”

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