Hailed by plaintiffs as a striking advance for free speech in Baltimore, a 10-year-old lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union has been settled by the Rawlings-Blake administration.
The city has agreed to a consent decree that will make sweeping changes to the confusing and restrictive rules requiring permits for persons or groups seeking to protest or leaflet at city parks.
The ACLU has long contended that the rules, especially those governing leafleting and demonstrations at the Inner Harbor, violated First Amendment free-speech guarantees.
The consent decree was signed last week by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz without fanfare.
It will be presented this morning to the Board of Estimates as part of a $98,000 settlement with the ACLU. As the winning party in a civil rights case, the ACLU is eligible for attorney fees resulting from the suit.
“This has been a long time coming,” ACLU of Maryland’s senior attorney David Rocah said yesterday, releasing the consent decree to The Brew. George Nilson, the city solicitor, confirmed the settlement last night.
For years, Rocah has been negotiating with the city to change its rules governing political protests – and the police’s handling of persons seeking to express their political views near the tourist attractions and Harborplace pavilions downtown.
The suit was originally filed on behalf of Women in Black, a peace group that had been harassed by police for not having a permit for their vigil at McKeldin Plaza.
“It Was Not Right”
Betsy Cunningham, the lead plaintiff, said she and other members of the group were told by police on April 4, 2003 that they had to leave McKeldin Square because they had not obtained a permit from the city.
“We were really taken aback by their attitude. It was not fair and it was not right,” she said in an interview yesterday.
So Cunningham and four others – Terry Dalsemer, Katharine LeVeque, Barbara Pula and the late Francis Finney – filed suit in U.S. District Court, alleging that the city’s requirement that they apply and pay for a permit was an unconstitutional infringement of their First Amendment rights.
The ACLU and city have bickered over the lawsuit since the Martin O’Malley administration, coming close to an agreement several times.
The consent decree finally hammered between Rocah and chief solicitor William R. Phelan Jr. calls for major changes in the way the city handles political demonstrations.
The decree only covers protests and protesters – it does not apply to street vendors or performers, or to overnight encampments on city property, such as last year’s Occupy Baltimore camp at McKeldin Square.
End of Onerous Permit System
There are seven key provisions, which will go into effect immediately:
• Any group of under 30 people will no longer need a city permit to protest in any public park.
• For protests over 30 people, a permit will be required from the Department of Recreation and Parks. An application must be made two days in advance, compared to the 30-to-60-day advance notice required in the past.
• The $235 “Demonstration Permit Application Fee” will be waived if the applicant swears that the fee “would inhibit the applicant’s ability to engage in the permitted activity.”
• For the first time ever, the city will grant “instant permits” – waiving the two-day advance notice requirement – if the director of parks determines that the activity “will not reasonably require the commitment of municipal resources or personnel in excess of those which are normally available.” Among those areas eligible for “instant permits” – the War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall.
• Leafleting by up to 30 people can be conducted without a permit in outdoor spaces of the Inner Harbor that are at least 15 feet away from restaurant dining, the waterside perimeter of the promenade and the amphitheater near Calvert and Pratt streets.
New areas where leafleting will be allowed include McKeldin Square, the grassy area between the World Trade Center and Aquarium, Rash Field, West Shore Fountain Park and around the Kaufman Pavilion.
• Hand-held, battery-operated megaphones will be allowed without the present requirement of a separately-issued city permit.
• The city will prepare a handout summarizing the new rules governing free speech activities. It will display information at the Inner Harbor showing where assembly and leafleting are allowed, and post regulations, permit forms, maps and summaries on a city website.
The city also pledges to train police officers assigned to the Inner Harbor about the new rules and to provide written “guidance” in the handling of disputes.
The consent decree states that police are to “accommodate” spontaneous demonstrations “whenever possible,” consistent with the need to avoid conflicts with previously permitted activities and “legitimate public safety considerations.”
Potential conflicts should be handled in a “non-confrontational” manner, the decree states, so as not to “restrain or limit First Amendment activities in any of the park areas” of the city.
The settlement ends the lawsuit (Cunningham v. Flowers, JFM-03-1058) between the Women in Black plaintiffs and the Mayor, City Council and the former director of Rec and Parks, Kimberly Flowers.