Central Park Great Lawn Lawsuit Results in Important Victory for Free Speech Rights

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Central Park Great Lawn Lawsuit
Results in Important Victory for Free Speech Rights

Settlement Strikes Down Regulations Banning Mass Assembly Protest
City Must Establish Constitutionally Valid Permitting Scheme for Protests in Central Park
~~ See New York Times article below ~~ 

The Partnership for Civil Justice has announced today the filing in Court of a landmark settlement agreement with the City of New York that strikes down key provisions of controversial and unconstitutional regulations aimed at restricting access to the Great Lawn of Central Park. The National Council of Arab Americans (NCA) and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

The City must now establish a constitutionally valid permitting scheme for protests in Central Park and must undertake a feasibility study into the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn and what efforts can be undertaken to maximize the availability of the lawn for large events including rallies and demonstrations. 

The settlement not only strikes down the 50,000 person limit on the Great Lawn -- which was used as the pretext to deny permits during the RNC -- it opens the door to a massive campaign enlisting all New Yorkers to insist on the right to maintain the Great Lawn as a public space available for mass assembly protest. This significant victory in the courts can be utilized to further mobilize the people in defense of Free Speech rights. Rather than acquiesce to the City when it denied permits for mass action during the RNC the NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. fought back.

The settlement also requires the city to pay damages to NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. for discriminatorily denying us the right to hold a demonstration on the Great Lawn during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. It also requires the City to pay attorneys fees and costs for the litigation.

The litigation was originally brought in advance of the Republican National Convention (RNC) by the Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJ), a Washington DC-based public interest law firm, when NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. sought to hold a demonstration in support of civil rights and civil liberties including the targeted Arab and Muslim community. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the opening of the RNC and was to be held on August 28, the 41st anniversary of Dr. King’s historic March on Washington, but was blocked by the City. Other organizations had also been denied permits to stage protest rallies in the Great Lawn during this period.

After the Republican National Convention concluded, the NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition determined that we would continue the litigation in order to block the effort of Mayor Bloomberg and wealthy and corporate backers to privatize Central Park, including the Great Lawn, and make it off limits to mass political assembly, while at the same time allowing corporate-sponsored, politically approved events.

This three-year long litigation has been hard-fought, and included depositions of top city officials as well as successful obtainment of more than 10,000 pages of critical documents including internal emails and other materials. These documents proved the falsity of the City’s representations as to the basis of the denials for protest permits in 2004. They also revealed that Mayor Bloomberg and his office were directly involved in political decision-making as to who should have access to the Great Lawn.

“The lawsuit and today’s settlement successfully challenges the brazenly unconstitutional efforts to bar protests from the Great Lawn,” states Carl Messineo, a co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice. “The Bloomberg administration, along with the NYC Parks Department, took concerted actions to illegally block mass assembly protest during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. The Arab-American community and anti-war protestors were barred from the use of Central Park’s Great Lawn for mass assembly protests.” he continued.

The litigation filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, National Council of Arab Americans and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition v. The City of New York City, et.al., 04-CV-6602 (WHP) has far reaching consequences not only for New York but for Free Speech rights in cities throughout the country.

“The lawsuit is not merely about the use of the Great Lawn of Central Park. It serves as an historic challenge to the privatization of public space and the ability of corporations to “purchase” our fundamental rights,” states Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the PCJ. “Mayor Bloomberg wanted to ban mass assembly protest from Manhattan during the Convention and forever after. The Great Lawn, with 13 acres of open space, has historically been used for the largest mass assembly events in NYC. We assert that if New York’s Great Lawn can be closed off to political assembly and protest, it will establish a precedent that will be replicated nationwide. There will be no parkland that will be safe for the continued use of the Free Speech rights of the people,” Verheyden-Hilliard emphasized.

While New York barred the use of the Great Lawn for political protests against policies of the Bush Administration, the Great Lawn has been the site of many large gatherings in recent years including an American Online-sponsored rock concert by the Dave Mathews Band that promoted an AOL product, the Metropolitan Opera, the Philharmonic Orchestra, and other international celebrations and mass gatherings. The City denied the permits to the NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. on the basis that the presence in Central Park of those intending to gather for civil rights would “damage the grass.”

Through this agreement, NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition retain our right to continue a legal challenge to any resulting regulations following the feasibility study that are not constitutionally sound. The City is obligated to provide notice to the organizations regarding the feasibility study and any regulatory changes. The organizations are each receiving $25,000 for the deprivation of the right to hold a protest on August 28, 2004. Separately, the City is also paying attorneys' fees and costs for the three year long litigation. The attorneys on the litigation are Carl Messineo and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice and Carol A. Sobel.

To view a copy of the settlement agreement and for more information on this litigation and other constitutional rights challenges, please visit the website of the Partnership for Civil Justice http://www.justiceonline.org/.

Below is an article from the New York Times on the settlement.

New York Times logo

Settlement on Use of Central Park’s Great Lawn

Published: January 8, 2008

After three years of contentious litigation, the New York City Parks Department agreed Tuesday to back away from a controversial regulation to limit public events on the Great Lawn, in the heart of Central Park, to 50,000 people. The decision to rescind the rule — put in place, the city said, to protect the lawn and used in an early form to deny permits to antiwar demonstrators — was hailed by its critics as a victory for the First Amendment and for the public use of public land.

“It’s an enormous victory for New Yorkers and for everyone who comes to New York City,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer for the Partnership for Civil Justice, which had challenged the regulation. “Not only for their free-speech rights, but for their rights to public space that belongs to the people.”

Enforcement of the rule was temporarily set aside as part of a settlement agreement with two antiwar groups that Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard’s group represents and that sued the city after they were denied a permit to hold a demonstration on the lawn in advance of the Republican National Convention in 2004. While the rule was not formally adopted until December 2005, the city had an informal policy of protecting the lawn in place since 1997, officials said, when it spent $18.2 to restore the 13-acre area.

Under the agreement, which staved off a looming federal trial, the city will now conduct a study to determine “the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn for large events.” Officials said that current regulations governing the lawn would remain in effect while the study is conducted, except that the maximum number of attendees permitted on the lawn will be up to 75,000 people.

“We believe that the settlement of this matter is in the city’s best interests,” said Michael A. Cardozo, the city’s Corporation Counsel. “The study will allow the Parks Department to obtain a recommendation that will help it determine whether, and to what extent, the Great Lawn can accommodate large concerts and rallies without significantly damaging the lawn or impeding its day-to-day use for softball and other recreational activities.”

When the regulation was officially—and quietly—established, city officials said that only six events with 5,000 to 50,000 spectators would be permitted each year on the lawn in order to protect its fragile 13 acres of Kentucky bluegrass. Of those six event permits, four were reserved for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, whose musical events drew “passive” crowds, officials said, which did little damage to the lawn.

The move to limit the gatherings was met at once with spirited criticism from groups who questioned the constitutionality of the restrictions and who argued that the possibility of damage to the lawn was no more than a pretext to mute political action. There were those who said the city was seeking to prevent demonstrations against the Iraq war and those of a more nostalgic bent who could remember a time when the Great Lawn was used for Simon and Garfunkel concerts and large-scale papal masses.

Before the regulation was adopted, there were no explicit limits on the number of people allowed to gather on the lawn, nor on the number of gatherings held there. Permission to assemble was granted on a case-by-case basis with any group of more than 20 requiring a permit.

The lawsuit which led to the agreement was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan by the National Council of Arab Americans and the Answer Coalition, which applied for — and were denied — permission to stage a rally on the Great Lawn on Aug. 28, 2004, before the Republican gathering in New York. The judge presiding in the case, William H. Pauley III, ruled in March that the city was constitutionally permitted to limit events on the lawn to protect it from damage but had to defend itself against the specific charge of violating the two groups’ First Amendment rights by denying them permission to march.

The study, which will be undertaken at the city’s expense, will be conducted by an independent committee, including at least three experts in “turf management” and one expert in crowd control, the settlement agreement says. Upon completion, its report will be sent to the parks commissioner who will then adopt or not adopt its recommendations.

Should the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit be unsatisfied with the city’s response to the study, the settlement agreement affords them the right to reopen the case. The agreement also requires the city to pay each of the groups $25,000 and reimburse them for $500,000 in attorneys’ costs and fees.

“The Parks Department has consistently made appropriate decisions to protect the Great Lawn’s primary function, which is to provide high-quality green space for active and passive recreation, as well as to accommodate cultural and political events,” said Adrian Benepe, the commissioner of parks and recreation. “We welcome the opportunity for further study.”

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