City reaches agreement in suit brought by activists

Permit regulations altered for small demonstrations

April 11, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A group of anti-war activists forced last week to disperse during a silent vigil at Baltimore's Inner Harbor accused the city in a federal lawsuit yesterday of violating basic free speech rights by requiring costly, burdensome permits for demonstrations on public property.

Even before the lawsuit was brought in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, however, city officials reached a tentative agreement with the group, known as the Women in Black. Under an agreement filed yesterday, the city suspended for 180 days permit regulations for groups of fewer than 25 people.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Women in Black, praised the quick resolution reached with Baltimore Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer.

Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, said in a written statement that Zollicoffer "affirmed that what distinguishes this country from many others is the right of free speech, even for those who may disagree with government policies."

Every Friday since the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the loose-knit coalition known as Women in Black has held a silent vigil at the Inner Harbor's McKeldin Square, near the intersection of Pratt and Light streets. Wearing black as a symbol of mourning and carrying signs with peace slogans, the group's weekly demonstrations are silent ones because they argue that words "cannot express the painful tragedy of war and violence," according to yesterday's federal complaint.

The group, which first organized in Baltimore in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, had encountered little resistance to their demonstrations, the complaint said.

But last Friday, they were told by city police officers that the protest had prompted complaints and that they would have to disband because they lacked a permit to demonstrate at the Inner Harbor, which is overseen by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Kimberly Amprey Flowers, interim director of the city parks department, was named as the defendant in the federal complaint. The five Baltimore residents named as plaintiffs were Betsy Cunningham, Terry Dalsemer, Katharine LeVeque, Frances Finney and Barbara Pula.

The Inner Harbor lawsuit follows a similar ACLU challenge to a University of Maryland policy that limits public speaking and handing out leaflets to designated "free speech zones" on the College Park campus.

In a lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the ACLU argued that students who want to pass out literature or voice their views shouldn't be limited to certain areas.

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