A coalition of local and national organizations opposed to a United States invasion of Iraq sued the city yesterday for denying it a permit to march past the United Nations en masse next week.
The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan sought a declaration from the court that the city's action violated the First Amendment and for an order permitting a parade of between 50,000 and 100,000 people. The Feb. 15 event would begin across from the United Nations and proceed to Central Park for a rally.
"When we're in times of crisis, it's all the more important that we zealously safeguard our rights, and there's nothing more basic than the right to march, to protest," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the groups.
The suit is the first of its kind against the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. During the administration of his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, scores of individuals and groups successfully sued the city in state and federal courts for seeking to abridge their freedom of speech or assembly.
Federal Judge Barbara Jones has scheduled a hearing for tomorrow on the anti-war rally.
Chris Dunn, a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that when the sponsor of the demonstration, United for Peace and Justice, applied for a police permit last month, it was turned down because of concerns cited about "congestion."
In a subsequent meeting, city lawyers told leaders of the group that they would only allow a stationary rally on First Avenue north of 47th Street and an adjacent plaza.
In the federal suit, the group said a march across from the United Nations on First Avenue was an "essential" element of the planned anti-war demonstration, given the UN's role in the ongoing investigation of Iraqi military capabilities and as center-stage for U.S. officials making their case for war.
Dunn said the city allows massive parades in Manhattan, be they for sports teams, ethnic groups or holidays, so an orderly demonstration of similar size should not be a problem for police.
In addition, huge marches have in the past passed the UN, such as a 1994 event marking the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, and two anti-nuclear rallies, in 1982 and 1988.
Asked about the suit, Bloomberg spokesman Jerry Russo cited a statement from a senior city lawyer, Jeffrey Friedlander, which said:
"The city has tried to work with organizers of the proposed event so they can express their views consistent with the First Amendment, but we will not allow any event to jeopardize public safety or prevent people from going about their business."
Staff writer Leonard Levitt contributed to this story.
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