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The Twin Cities Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

St. Paul GOP Convention Protest Dispute Returning To Court

Jason Hoppin

Round 2 of the legal fight over protests outside this year's Republican National Convention is under way.0611 03 1 2 3

The Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War is taking its dispute with the city over a march on the Xcel Energy Center back to federal court, reviving a case originally filed when the group was frustrated with the city's sluggish response to its permit request.

This time, the organization wants a judge to force the city to change the time, location and duration of a route for an estimated 50,000 protesters expected to voice their disapproval of the war in Iraq. The coalition is accusing the city of rolling out the red carpet for the convention while ignoring the free-speech rights of citizens.

"This really is a question of whether the political discussion in this country is owned by the politicians or if the people are allowed to participate," said Bruce Nestor, a lawyer for the group.

Tom Walsh, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, which handles protest permits, said the route granted by police for the Sept. 1 march - which takes protesters within dozens of feet of the Xcel Energy Center - is fair.

"Look at the access they're being given. The city still has to continue to function. This is unprecedented in terms of the access that they're being given to the venue," Walsh said.

The group originally sought a route from the state Capitol to the Xcel via John Ireland and Kellogg boulevards. Two days before a scheduled federal court hearing over the lack of a permit, police granted an alternative permit through downtown St. Paul along Cedar and West Seventh streets.

But the protesters objected to the route's start time, saying it was too early - noon - and that the march would not last long enough for protesters to adequately voice their anti-war message to conventioneers. They also prefer the original route because it is wider and more visible.

The group and its lawyers, who include private attorneys and local chapters of the National Lawyer's Guild and American Civil Liberties Union, also hired a consultant who estimates the route could handle only 28,000 marchers.

The consultant, James Benshoof of the engineering firm Wenck Associates, also concluded that for the march to keep moving, protesters would only be allowed to remain in a triangular free-speech area across from Xcel for 6 1/2 minutes. He also said a narrow intersection at Cedar and West Seventh streets would inhibit the flow of pedestrians.

A less-detailed Pioneer Press analysis concluded that 40,000 could fit along the route.

Walsh disputed the findings, saying the city comfortably accommodated nearly 40,000 for a speech by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama last week and nearly 300,000 for Grand Old Day on June 1.

He also pointed out that Benshoof is a hired consultant.

"He was selected for a reason," Walsh said.

Under federal law, the city is allowed to restrict the route as long as those restrictions are content-neutral (which the protesters dispute) and narrowly tailored (another dispute) and provide an adequate alternative.

Meredith Aby, a spokeswoman for the coalition, also said the route's restrictions, along with a requirement that marchers turn around at the Xcel and retrace their steps, raises questions about whether the march could be executed in an orderly fashion. She said that means police and other security officers may have to engage in crowd control.

"They shouldn't want that any more than we do," Aby said.

The convention leading to the expected anointment of John McCain as the GOP presidential nominee will be held Sept. 1-4.

© 2008 Pioneer Press

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