LOS ANGELES - The ACLU of Southern California today filed a lawsuit supporting protesters' right to gather and engage in free speech such as marching, passing out leaflets, and holding vigils near the Staples Center during the Democratic National Convention. The lawsuit challenges a plan developed by the Los Angeles Police Department that blocks groups from using a huge swath of public property around the Center, preventing them from communicating to their target audience -- convention delegates and public officials in attendance. Plaintiffs in the case include the Service Employees International Union, Local 660; the Los Angeles Coalition to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the D2K Convention Planning Coalition, all of whom plan peaceful protests near the convention site.
"The selection of a Presidential candidate is a critical focal point in our democratic process," said Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California, "a time when we should be encouraging speech, not putting it in a straight-jacket. Free speech strengthens our democracy, and it's a right our Constitution guarantees us."
"Basic constitutional rights cannot be put on ice simply because a political convention is in town," said ACLU of Southern California staff attorney Dan Tokaji, "The plan developed by the Los Angeles Police Department would place all protesters in a parking lot far away from the Staples Center, with sequentially scheduled protests arranged by permit only. The huge buffer around the Center stretches from Venice Boulevard on the South, to Olympic Boulevard on the North, and from the 110 Freeway on the West to Flower Street on the East. This, in essence, creates a no-speech zone around the convention."
"I'll leave to philosophers the question of whether trees that fall in the wilderness really make a sound," said Ripston, "but I know this: you're not engaged in free speech if you're only allowed to talk in a distant parking lot. The proposal put forward by the Los Angeles Police Department is absurd: it treats public speech as an empty ritual unconnected to an audience. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and nature of free speech."
The Republican National Convention, which will take place this year in Philadelphia, has also stirred controversy between free speech proponents and city and convention officials. In Philadelphia, officials granted an "omnibus permit" to the RNC, effectively offering first dibs over all public sites to convention planners. The ACLU of Pennsylvania successfully challenged that permitting scheme.
"It is the duty of the ACLU to ensure that the First Amendment has meaning and substance," said Ripston. "In the case of political conventions, this earns us the disapproval of both parties. In our opinion, the parties should welcome the lively public engagement of political protests - it might help more people understand the parties' principles and get connected to a political process that seems increasingly detached from people's everyday lives."
"This is a very clear legal case with clear precedents," said Tokaji. "In 1996, for instance, the Republican National Committee tried to have a free speech zone moved from an area next to the Convention site to one where demonstrators would be out of sight and earshot. That effort was successfully blocked in federal court."
Attorney Carol Sobel, co-counsel in the case, noted that the city has long been on notice that various aspects of its own permitting scheme for protests are unconstitutional, but has failed to act.
"The City of Los Angeles was put on notice over fifteen years ago that its permit-granting scheme was unconstitutional, but it's still on the books," said Sobel. "This city needs to understand that its regulations don't trump the U.S. Constitution."
Tokaji explained that the use of Pershing Square as a staging area, a possibility raised by City Councilmember Jackie Goldberg in an amendment to the Council's funding motion, doesn't address the central concern of protesters, which is to communicate to delegates and public officials at the convention site.
The ACLU of Southern California is joined by Carol Sobel, Esq.; Robert Myers, of Newman. Aronson. Vanaman., and law professor Karl Manheim of Loyola Law School in filing the lawsuit.