ACLU criticizes protest march plan

It says proposal to charge groups violates Constitution

January 06, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer sharply criticized yesterday Annapolis officials' claims that protest marches might not be covered by the free speech guarantees of the Constitution.

"The Supreme Court, of course, has specifically held that marches are protected speech under the First Amendment," Dwight Sullivan, the lawyer, wrote in a letter to city officials noting excerpts from the high court's decisions.

Sullivan wrote the letter after a heated public hearing Monday during which 30 anti-abortion activists showed up at City Hall to protest proposed legislation that would require event organizers to pay for city services such as police overtime and trash pickup.

The measure could cost organizers of the annual Annapolis March for Life, which drew about 2,000 people last year and involved closing Rowe Boulevard, about $5,400 for police services. Those charges would infringe on First Amendment guarantees, Sullivan and the march organizers argued.

The procession from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to a rally at the State House is scheduled for March 1.

Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson approved the permit for the march Dec. 1, but city spokesman Thomas W. Roskelly told march organizers three weeks ago that he was holding up the permit because of the proposed legislation, prompting protests.

Roskelly released the permit Monday after meeting with Johnson and Paul G. Goetzke, the city attorney. He and Alderman Herb McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican who introduced the bill Dec. 14, said they will examine whether the First Amendment protects marchers from such fees.

"I was really disturbed by the suggestion that a march may not be covered by the First Amendment," Sullivan, who has been working with the American Center for Law and Justice on the issue, said yesterday. "It could not be clearer under Supreme Court case law" that it is, he said.

Goetzke said he had not read the letter and declined to comment on it. He said he plans to meet with Sullivan and McMillan to discuss issue later this week.

"There is no one in the city of Annapolis who is trying to repeal the First Amendment," Roskelly said. "This whole matter of freedom of speech seems to imply if you want to say something, you can simply shut down the city of Annapolis in order to say it, and that is not true."

McMillan suggested that the marchers would not be billed if they used the sidewalk so that the street would remain open.

Sullivan argued that the police could still decide to close the street for public safety.

"Even if it is a small group," Sullivan said yesterday, "if the fear is that the message is controversial, police may say, `There's such a danger from people driving by and throwing stuff at them that we need to close down the street.' Then they're going to be charged for it. They may then be priced out of the marketplace of ideas."

Sgt. Paul Gibbs, special-events coordinator for Annapolis Police Department, said that even if the March For Life demonstrators decided to stay on the sidewalk, he would close Rowe Boulevard because the event draws so many people.

McMillan said he introduced his bill after learning that Annapolis paid more than $300,000 in the past fiscal year to pay for police protection and trash removal during events such as boat shows and parades.

Arthur W. Sawyer Jr., chairman of the march committee, said it is "nice and all that" that Roskelly released the permit, but he worried about future marches if the measure is approved.

"I need some assurances in that ordinance that we won't be charged in the future," he said. "If they need to receive reimbursement, they need to talk to the state government, because we're not down there talking to the city of Annapolis, we're down there talking to the State of Maryland."

Roskelly said the city has been examining the issue. The state paid the city $267,000 in the past fiscal year to cover police and fire services on state property. But the city ended up paying $599,000 for those services.

"People can say the state already pays you, but they don't pay the entire cost," Roskelly said. "This is a problem with a lot of state capitals in the country that play host to demonstrations and municipalities end up footing the bill."

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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