The plaintiffs in this case the National Council of Arab Americans and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition had been denied the fundamental First Amendment right to demonstrate in mass assembly and political protest in the Great Lawn of Central Park. Rather than capitulate to the pressure of the government or agree to have free speech rights exiled out of Manhattan or to its outer margins that are invisible from the center of New York, the plaintiffs went to court to vindicate the free speech rights of all progressive people in New York City and the United States who wish to challenge the Bush administration at this critical time. The RNC is holding its assembly in midtown Manhattan, and those who oppose the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic policies are entitled to assemble in central Manhattan as well.
As a consequence of our legal challenge and the ongoing political struggle, the real policy of Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York in regard to the use of Central Park for mass assembly protest has been forced out of the shadows. A bright light now shines on the real program of the Mayor and the City in regard to mass assembly protest in Central Park and in the borough of Manhattan. The use of Central Park is being privatized. The billionaire Mayor and the billionaire corporations have colluded in a plan to turn Central Park, the heart and soul of New York City, a site long associated with mass assembly, into the private playground of corporate America. The contradictions, shifting rationales and indeed flat out deceptions carried out by the Mayor and the City of New York are now clear for all those who want to see.
We made it clear in our litigation and in our court testimony that people of conscience standing together with the Arab American and Muslim community in support of civil rights and civil liberties were calling a demonstration on the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington and at the time of the RNC to say that civil rights extend to all people in the United States. It is the City's position that this community and its allies are not entitled to use the Great Lawn of Central Park while the corporate and banking elite are given preferential treatment to use the same venue.
What’s at stake in the litigation and the outcome of the struggle is not simply the right to demonstrate on August 28, August 29 or any other day. What’s at stake is the right of the people of New York to exercise free speech mass assembly in accordance with the Bill of Rights in New York City. The decision of the judge today is a disappointment, but we can make it perfectly clear that under no circumstances will the people of New York or the United States surrender their cherished First Amendment right to carry out mass assembly protest. Millions of people in the United States would, if they could, like to be in New York City to stand up and say that they vehemently oppose the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq and its assault on civil liberties and civil rights in New York City. They will not all be coming, but hundreds of thousands will demonstrate throughout the city in the course of the coming week and they will be in Central Park as they are entitled to be.
It is imperative that we all stand up for our free speech rights by coming to New York and speaking out and not lose sight of the most important issue: our ability and obligation to stand together and demand an end to this government's aggression against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Haiti and elsewhere, and fight for social justice here at home.
We need to review a few of the facts, and the facts are the essence here because the City of New York and Mayor Bloomberg are lying.
The City of New York is so desperate to bar political protest and assembly in Central Park, they made willful misrepresentations to the court and presented the court with a demonstrably false record upon which the court was obliged to rule. The City could not tell the truth.
In their filings, sworn statements and representations to the court, they presented ever-shifting rationales. As each rationale was defeated or exposed as false, they created new ones. They stated that they couldn’t hold an event that was ticketless, but yet their AOL-Time Warner-sponsored Philharmonic events, 150th anniversary events, and many of the major events they reserve the lawn for are ticketless events.
At one point the city said that the size of the NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. event planned for 75,000 people was too large for the Great Lawn. But AOL-Time Warner brought in the Dave Matthews band last fall for 85,000 people.
They swore that Philharmonic audiences on the Great Lawn were not greater than 45,000, yet that is contradicted by every public report that has numbers of up to 85,000 people, including New York Times statements that the police counted 85,000 people at the Philharmonic concerts (sponsored by AOL-Time Warner); the Philharmonic itself also gives that number on its website.
They claim that they will not hold an event unless it has a rain date and is cancelled when it rains. Yet the Philharmonic and Opera have been held without rain dates and just after or during downpours.
All of these excuses came at the eleventh hour from the city. Early on, the City refused to respond to the plaintiffs’ (NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition) requests for an explanation for the denial of the permit or to identify what they thought were alternative locations. Despite the plaintiffs filing within one week of finally getting a letter with the specific reasons for the denial, the City then claimed that delay in litigation was due to the plaintiffs, when it was the City that exhibited recalcitrance and unrelenting obstruction.
The City refused to provide the plaintiffs with identification for what they asserted were "alternative" locations, despite request after request, and never gave this information to plaintiffs until the day before the hearing in New York, and then only through their court filings. They told the plaintiffs they could go to Brooklyn or Queens or cut their demonstration by one-third and be sent to the East Meadow.
Originally they said we couldn’t stand because it would damage the grass by increasing the specific pressure on the lawn as opposed to when people sit or lie on the grass. The City stated that the protesters could not use the lawn because they would not be sitting on blankets like the Philharmonic audience does. When we stated that some number of attendees would use blankets, the City turned around and said that by sitting on the blankets they would take up too much space. As we argued in Court, the City is claiming that we can’t have the permit because we might be standing and we can’t have the permit because we might be sitting.
The City can’t tell the truth about what is going on because the truth of the matter is they have taken Central Park and are turning it into a privatized country club. When it comes to mass assembly it is only available for Mayor Bloomberg and corporate supporters.
Importance of these Demonstrations
It has become very evident, in fact crystal clear during the course of this litigation, that what is at stake is not simply the right of people to demonstrate in mass assembly protest in Central Park on August 28 or August 29 or on any other particular day. From the papers filed by the City, as well as their representations in court and out, we now know, as we suspected, that the plan of the City of New York, in combination with the corporations that constitute the Central Park Conservancy, is that they intend to ban for all time mass assembly political protests in Central Park. They intend to use the renovated Central Park strictly for corporate and government functions. $18.2 million was contributed by corporations and the well to do for the restoration and renovation of some of the lawn areas in Central Park. In exchange, the people of New York are told to forfeit their right of free speech in what we all know to be the heart and soul of New York City. What’s the price tag to stifle free speech and dissent according to the Mayor and other City officials, as well as the Wall Street corporations? Well, apparently it’s just $18 million.
There are 7 million plus people that live in New York City. Our historic free speech rights, according to Mayor Bloomberg and the City, amount to about $2.50 per person. For the people of New York, there is no price tag for the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. These rights are not for sale. They are not for lease to corporations either.
We suspected that this was the case when the permit filed by the NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition for mass assembly protest on August 28, or the permit that was filed for a large mass assembly by United for Peace and Justice on August 29, were denied. Our suspicions grew because of the way the mayor and the City handled these permit applications. In the case of the August 28 permit application for a rally of 75,000 people to defend Arab American and Muslim civil rights that are under assault, the City’s conduct and rationales offer a startling insight.
A quick look at the record over the past six months gives lie to the stated reasons for the denial of the permit. The permit was filed on January 7, 2004. In mid-March, the permit applicants were informed that the City had yet to make a decision, and indicated that there may be a conflict with other pre-existing usage for the Great Lawn. The permit was denied without a specific reason being given on June 15, 2004, except that they would not allow an event of "that nature." They said the rally would interfere with the enjoyment of others. The NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition insisted in writing that the City give a specific reason for the denial. We pressed for specificity and it was only on August 6, 2004, that we were told that the permit was denied because of the supposed damage that would be inflicted on the Great Lawn. On August 12, a brand new rationale was provided by Mayor Bloomberg, who stated that the real reason permits on August 28 and other days during the RNC were denied was because of the purported inability to bring an ambulance into that area of Central Park in the event of an emergency. In the meanwhile, the City had announced that the United for Peace and Justice was denied a permit for the Great Lawn on August 29 because their permit application for 250,000 exceeded the numbers that would be allowed into the Great Lawn.
This too shows that the rationales given are in fact not only shifting but contradict each other because the August 28 permit application that was denied was for a rally of 75,000, which is 5,000 fewer than the 80,000 that the Parks Department told UFPJ was the maximum number of participants that would be allowed in the Great Lawn.
Unity in the defense of free speech
Inside and out of court we exposed that the shifting rationales offered by the City for the denial of mass assembly protest permits in the Great Lawn of Central Park during the RNC was not a neutral based restriction on First Amendment protected activity, but in fact was political. It was not content-neutral, and as a consequence the denial of the permit is Constitutionally invalid. Unable to sustain the logic of their own position - that is, to explain away the fact that shifting rationales and explanations were given for the denial of permits - the City attorneys in their final representation before Federal District Court Judge William Pauley on Friday, August 20, provided an entirely new rationale: they stated that the Great Lawn could not withstand two mass assembly rallies taking place back to back, one on August 28 and one on August 29. The NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition made it clear to the court and it is our position that the city, devoid of any logical reason for denying these permits, was seeking a new last ditch effort to justify the denial of everyone’s permits. For our part, the NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition told the court that we were prepared to deal with this objection just as we had made it clear that we were willing to adequately address all the other specific objections that were raised to the granting of permits for mass assembly protest before and during the Republican National Convention.
At the conclusion of the Emergency Hearing on Friday, August 20, a meeting took place between the plaintiffs and the City’s representatives. The NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition representatives specifically addressed all the outstanding issues, even the last minute issue that had been raised by the City in the Emergency Hearing. Each and every issue thrown out by the City, no matter how pretextual, was adequately addressed and we met all of the purported requirements demanded by the City. Most notably, the NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition representatives addressed the City’s last ditch claim that it would not allow back to back demonstrations. If the City was going to deny permits for the use of Central Park for either or both groups based on its new assertion, then the NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition would support the right of the August 29 march to use the Great Lawn and Central Park. The NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition do not believe this is a legitimate basis to deny any permit but at this late hour did not want to give the City the ability to do so. On the morning of Saturday, August 21, the City rejected the proposal even though every one of their stated and newly claimed criteria had been met. The City made it clear that what is involved in its decision making is an attempt to alter the historical significance and status of Central Park by transforming the park from a site where mass political protest was allowed to one that would be exclusively used for corporate- and government-sponsored events.
The Great Lawn of Central Park is the heart and soul of New York City, the site historically of mass assembly, and it is a cherished treasure that belongs to the people of New York and the people of the United States.
We want to thank our attorneys who have tenaciously waged this fight on an emergency basis upholding our Constitutional rights, not just in the abstract, but with a firm understanding of the political nature of these events. Thanks go to Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo of the Partnership for Civil Justice; Carol Sobel of the Law Offices of Carol Sobel; Bill Goodman, Jonathan Moore and David Milton of Moore & Goodman, LLP; and to the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee.
This free speech struggle did not end today. Now that Mayor Bloomberg and the City’s intent and plans to shut down Central Park to political opposition have been made clear, we are planning to commit ourselves to a legal struggle to overturn this attempt to abridge the First Amendment rights that matter to all of us.
Help us take the next steps! We need your support both for this historic legal struggle and to organize in the face of the City’s efforts to silence dissent and have a massive showing during the week of the Republican National Convention. You can make an online donation using the secure server by clicking here. If you wish to make a tax-deductible contribution of $50 or more, mail a check payable to A.N.S.W.E.R./AGJ to: A.N.S.W.E.R., 1247 E St. SE Washington DC 20003. You can also make a tax-deductible credit card donation of $50 or more by calling 202-544-3389.
To get involved in the local activities, contact the A.N.S.W.E.R. office in New York City at 212-533-0417 (please take note of this number for all inquiries).