The drama of the free speech battle in New York City riveted the attention of a packed courtroom filled with supporters and media today as the attorneys for the National Council of Arab Americans and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition exposed the shifting rationales given by the City of New York for the denial of permits in Central Park as nothing but a pretext to silence opponents of the Bush administration's domestic and foreign policies.
The case was argued by Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on behalf to the Partnerships for Civil Justice and the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee.
The National Council of Arab Americans (NCA) filed a permit application on January 7, 2004, for a mass assembly rally of 75,000 people in the Great Lawn of Central Park two days before the August 30 opening of the Republican National Convention. After waiting six months, the City of New York denied the permit. The attorneys established that New York City refused to give specific rationale for the denial of the permit. They asserted that the denial was politically motivated.
In the court case today, the plaintiffs insisted that the city was using the renovation of the grass on the Great Lawn in Central Park as a justification to deny political opponents of the Bush administration permits even though the City and Parks Department have given permits for corporate sponsored events, including music concerts, since the completion of the renovation in 1997.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of the NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition seeks to open access to Central Park for all those intending to stage mass anti-Bush demonstrations during the week of the Republican National Convention and to ensure that the park is open to people expressing political dissent without fear of arrest.
Judge William H. Pauley, III concluded the nearly three-hour hearing and announced that he would issue his ruling Monday morning, August 23.
The outcome of the battle for free speech in New York City during the RNC is of utmost importance for all who want to defend the civil rights and civil liberties that are under assault by the Bush administration.
Throughout the hearing the city gave shifting rationales - from the grass to the size of the event to rain to ticketing. In the last minutes of the hearing, they came up with a completely new argument, asserting that they were denying all groups the ability to engage in political speech in the park out of "fairness." They asserted for the first time that the park could not accommodate an event on both August 28 and August 29.
Recognizing this as a brand new effort to justify their denial of free speech rights by seeking to divide those who are protesting during the RNC, attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard told the court that the NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition would not be pitted against other groups and would not allow the city to use the permitting process to obstruct the important demonstration going forward on August 29. The NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition made it clear to the court that it will not accept a resolution that denies anyone else free speech rights.
Throughout their argument, the NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. argued to the court the right of all others, including the August 29 demonstration sponsored by United for Peace and Justice, to have access to the Great Lawn in Central Park. By exposing the government's shifting rationales for the denial of both permits, the attorneys effectively revealed that the city's denial of the August 29 permit was in fact content-based discrimination.
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ARTICLE FROM NEW YORK NEWSDAY:
Protesters await judge's ruling
August 20, 2004
By Anthony M. Destefano
A group of Arab-Americans and other protesters will find out Monday morning whether a federal judge in Manhattan will force the city to allow them to hold a large demonstration on Central Park's Great Lawn on the eve of the Republican National Convention.
Judge William H. Pauley III said Friday he will have his decision by 11 a.m. Monday on whether City Hall improperly denied a permit for the demonstration in June.
After listening to legal arguments and testimony about the free-speech battle, which pits the National Council of Arab Americans and an anti-war coalition, against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, Pauley tried to prod the parties to work out a compromise.
"I get the sense somewhere there may be a middle ground that may be arrived at here," Pauley said after more than two hours of legal arguments and testimony.
He added that the issue is "an impasse that, quite frankly, the court is in a difficult position to decide."
The Arab council and the coalition - Act Now To Stop War & End Racism, or ANSWER - applied in January for an Aug. 28 permit to rally 75,000 people on the Great Lawn, where they were to call for an end to racial and religious profiling and advance equal rights for Arabs and Muslims in the United States. The city denied their request on June 15.
Testifying yesterday, Brian Becker, who is coordinating the rally, said the lawn was chosen because it has come to symbolize free speech rights.
"The Great Lawn is to New York what the National Mall is to Washington, D.C.," he said.
Becker testified that the city never gave a specific reason for denying the permit. He said that in recent weeks the Department of Parks and Recreation has given what where shifting reasons.
Those reasons, Becker's lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said, generally revolved around fears of damage to the lawn, the renovation of which was completed in 1998.
Later statements by city officials about the grass, fear of increased destruction of the landscape if rain fell and the need to control admission by ticketing were pretexts for an unconstitutional denial of a permit because of the political nature of the event, Verheyden-Hilliard argued.
Special corporation counsel Gail Donoghue stressed in her argument that the city had a real fear that rain during the rally would destroy the lawn.
She also said that while 28 permits for demonstrations during the Republican National Convention were granted, the coalition's rally — as well as one sought by United for Peace and Justice for Aug. 29 — would ruin the grass.
Donoghue explained that horticulturists and other experts believe the lawn's surface can sustain six mass-crowd events a year, four of which have already occurred.
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