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The Progressive

ACLU of Colorado Sues to Ensure DNC Protesters' Rights

Matthew Rothschild

If you're planning on going to protest at the Democratic National Convention in Denver August 25-28, they're not making it easy on you.

Neither the city nor the Secret Service has yet let the public know about when and where they can protest.

It should be considered an abomination even to have to ask, under our Constitution, to exercise our First Amendment rights.

But after what happened four years ago at the Democratic Convention in Boston or at the Republican Convention in New York or at the FTAA protests in Miami, the ability to speak, assemble, and petition our government for redress of grievances has become very circumscribed.

Many protest groups are willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, but in Denver, they don't even know how narrow those hoops are going to be.

"Denver has refused to process any applications for parade permits during the DNC, and it has refused to disclose any information about the 'demonstration zone' that it plans to set up," explained Steven D. Zansberg, an ACLU cooperating attorney. "Denver says it is waiting for the Secret Service to decide the outer boundaries of the security perimeter, and the Secret Service says it may not decide until July. If the plaintiffs are forced to wait for these government agencies to act, there will be not be enough time for a court to review unreasonable restrictions on First Amendment activity."

Plaintiffs include the ACLU, American Friends Service Committee, American Indian Movement of Colorado, Americans for Safe Access, CODEPINK, Escuela Tlatelolco, Troops Out Now Coalition, Recreate 68, Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Citizens for Obama, Tent State University, and United for Peace and Justice.

"Less than 120 days before" the Democratic National Convention, "the plaintiffs are unable to organize and plan their free speech and assembly activities," the lawsuit alleges. "Despite numerous requests and urgings from the plaintiffs over the past several months, the City and County of Denver has refused even to begin the process of issuing permits needed to conduct 'parades' (political protest marches) along the public thoroughfares that from time immemorial have been reserved for such expressive use by the People."

Stalling by the city and the Secret Service is "making it impossible for Plaintiffs to organize rallies, protests, and other demonstrations," thus infringing on their constitutional rights, the suit says.

The protest groups are urging the court "to order the Secret Service to share with the city the information the city says it needs in order to process the Plaintiff's pending requests for parade permits."

All of the plaintiffs are nonviolent. One plaintiff, "Citizens for Obama," is a group set up by a Vermont citizen named Damian Sedney. He's been trying to get a permit for a pro-Obama march and rally at the convention. And even he has been stymied.

The ACLU of Colorado has been in discussion with the City of Denver, and in particular Deputy Police Chief Michael Battista, since May 23, 2007, about the upcoming protests. The group held four meetings with Battista or other city officials last year about this, and has had several other communications this year. Battista told the ACLU of Colorado that the Secret Service would have a "hard-security perimeter" around the Pepsi Center, where the convention is being held. Battista said there would be "free speech zone" or "demonstration zone" outside the Secret Service's perimeter.

But these zones have yet to be announced, and anyway, not all the plaintiffs are willing to be penned in like that.

"For certain plaintiff organizations," the suit says, "the prospect of being caged behind wires and fencing, with battalions of riot-clad law enforcement flanked around them, is anathema. In the eyes of these organizations, such militarism and forced confinement in the face of peaceful, humble petitioning is wholly inappropriate, and they refuse to enter such a 'demonstration zone.' Instead, these organizations intend to exercise their constitutional right of peaceful assembly and speech on the public forum spaces, such as sidewalks, walkways, and the like, as close as possible to the Convention. For these plaintiff organizations, therefore, it is imperative that the city not unconstitutionally close off access."

The Secret Service did not return a call for comment.

Denver City Attorney David Fine gave the following statement:

"No one has been denied a parade permit. No one has been denied the right to protest. In fact you will see a vigorous exercise of free speech during the convention - in many ways and in many places. That being said, we will review the plaintiff's papers and respond as necessary." Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.

© 2008 The Progressive

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