Central Park Free Speech Lawsuit

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Central Park Free Speech Lawsuit;
New York City's Free Speech Battle
and Its National Impact;
City's Attempt to Stealthily Enact New Regulations
Restricting Protest Exposed

Across the country, police agencies, often working in joint action with federal law enforcement, have worked to obstruct and disrupt free speech activities and the mass assemblies of people taking to the streets to fight against war and for social justice. This movement has faced mass arrests and round-ups of political activists; brutality; abusive conditions of detention; denial of permits; political, racial and religious profiling and intelligence gathering; and disinformation campaigns. The people's struggle in the streets - their refusal to be silenced - coupled with the work of progressive attorneys will make the difference in defending free speech rights. This battle will be fought in the courts and in the streets, on the sidewalks, and in the parklands. VoteNoWar.org members have played a significant role in organizing and coming out for anti-war demonstrations across the country.

In New York, the City is now trying a new tactic - they are attempting to take away the very ground on which we stand to voice our opinions when we come together in mass assembly. They are trying to take away what is traditionally a public forum for free speech activities - Central Park. The attempt to banish mass assembly protest from Manhattan and exile it into the outer boroughs of New York is a prototype for what is being attempted in cities throughout the country. If they can succeed in New York City, a historic center for the progressive and union movement, the government and Corporate America feel they will be able to succeed elsewhere.

The National Council of Arab Americans and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition are currently in Federal District Court with a lawsuit brought by the Partnership for Civil Justice and the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee to stop the city in its tracks and protect free speech rights. The Central Park litigation's Complaint and Memorandum of Law have been posted online and are available at www.JusticeOnline.org, the website of the attorneys at the Partnership for Civil Justice. To get low volume updates and breaking alerts on this fight and other important First Amendment and free speech litigation from the Partnership for Civil Justice, you can sign up here. The case is being litigated by constitutional rights attorneys Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo of PCJ and Carol Sobel, all also on behalf of NLG Mass Defense.

This lawsuit was initially brought last summer during the Republican National Convention when the City of New York denied the right of the Arab-American and Muslim communities and the anti-war movement to come together in solidarity on August 28 to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties on the Great Lawn of Central Park. This was the anniversary of the historic 1963 civil rights March on Washington. With ever shifting rationales, the City claimed that the renovated park and grass couldn't survive free speech, as opposed to corporate-sponsored concerts or opera music. The NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. took the City to federal court to demand our constitutional rights. The City sought to force anti-war and civil rights activists to capitulate to their requirements that our speech be exiled out of Manhattan, where the RNC was meeting, or be shunted off to the sidelines in smaller numbers, but we said, "Our free speech rights are non-negotiable." The City, using different pretexts, also denied the right of United for Peace and Justice to hold a mass rally demonstration in Central Park's Great Lawn on August 29. As it was made explicit in the Court hearing on August 20, this lawsuit sought to defend of all those who sought to exercise the First Amendment right to protest in Central Park.

Since last summer, all groups that have sought to have mass protests in Central Park have been forced to take a back seat and have not been allowed on the Great Lawn. The government has tried to convince political activists that they should be happy to receive a corner of the park other than the Great Lawn and consider it a "victory." In addition to the unconstitutional denial of access to this important public space there is another plan at work - as soon as these last few areas are also renovated with big business dollars, they too will no longer be available to the people for mass public protest. This is the real story: the City intends to banish large scale protest from all of Central Park, the only area in Manhattan that can accommodate such protests, within the next few years.

Because we recognized the City's real plan and knew that this wasn't just about one protest or one day, we decided to continue this free speech lawsuit beyond the RNC.

Now, in response to this lawsuit and ongoing political struggle, Mayor Bloomberg, the City government, and corporate partners have been forced out of the shadows. Lacking a legal leg to stand on, the City is now speedily moving to ram through "new regulations" that will codify their effort to banish protest and formally restrict use of the Great Lawn. ("Keeping Great Crowds Off Central Park's Great Lawn," New York Times, April  27, 2005) They are now trying to cover their tracks by enacting these new regulations. This is a thinly veiled political maneuver to shield their contradictory legal and factual positions that have been thoroughly exposed by the litigation. Behind the smoke and mirrors the new regulations allow the corporations and big-money donors to essentially privatize this public forum, the largest area of park in Manhattan. Unless we stop them, free speech protest will be fundamentally negated in Central Park while this area, the scene of the largest mass protest in New York City history, will be set aside for preferential treatment and access to certain city-approved and corporate sponsored events.

The Central Park litigation, the Complaint and Memorandum of Law, are available at www.JusticeOnline.org, the website of our attorneys at the Partnership for Civil Justice. To get low volume updates and breaking alerts on this fight and other important First Amendment and free speech litigation from the Partnership for Civil Justice you can sign up here. The website of the National Council of Arab Americans is at www.Arab-American.net.

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