ACLU Files Lawsuit Charging Asheville, NC Violates Right to Stage Peaceful Demonstrations
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
City Code Allows Police to Charge Exorbitant Fees for Protest Permits
ASHEVILLE, NC — The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of an immigration reform group that was charged exorbitant, unnecessary fees for a permit to hold a peaceful march in Asheville on May 1, 2006.
The organization, May 1st We Are One America Committee, was charged $1,500 to obtain the permit, which included fees for services that the group did not request or need.
“People’s ability to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech in America should not be contingent upon their ability to pay exorbitant, unnecessary fees,” said Katherine Lewis Parker, Legal Program Coordinator for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Political demonstrations on public streets and sidewalks are a cornerstone of American democracy, and the city’s assessment of these extraordinary fees places a substantial burden on all but the wealthiest Americans’ ability to exercise this fundamental right.”
According to the complaint, the police department charged the organization with arbitrary fees just days before the event, despite the group’s objections that they would not be able to pay. The group was charged $1,000 for police protection, $100 for rental of Pack Square, $150 for parking meter fees that the city claimed it could not collect due to the temporary street closures, and $250 for barricades. On Friday, April 28, the police department informed the group that the permit would be issued, allowing them to have their march, only if the fees were paid in full by 11:00 a.m. on Monday, May 1.
The group was able to pull together the funds and held a peaceful march that drew an estimated 3,000 – 3,500 supporters. The march started at 4:00 p.m. at the Basilica of St. Lawrence in downtown Asheville, wound through downtown, and ended with the demonstrators crowding into Pack Square to hear speakers who echoed national calls for Congress to adopt comprehensive, fair immigration reform legislation. By all accounts, the event was peaceful and orderly.
“We don’t mind paying a reasonable permit fee for administrative expenses as required by city code, but the police department just kept tacking on more and more charges for services we never requested, never needed, and should not have had to pay for,” said Danielle Fernandez, one of the organizers of the May 1 event. “We scrambled to raise the money at the last minute and were lucky to be able to go forward with our event, but these burdensome costs were unfair and illegal, and we want to make sure that the city doesn’t do this again to any other groups or individuals seeking to exercise their free speech rights in Asheville.”
The ACLU charges that Asheville’s city code violates federal and state constitutional rights to free speech because it fails to provide narrowly drawn, reasonable and definite standards to determine permit fees and instead delegates unbridled discretion to the police chief. The ACLU noted that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar ordinance in 1992 in a case called Forsyth County, Georgia, v. The Nationalist Movement.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in the Western District of North Carolina, and is asking the court to strike down the code and order reimbursement for the exorbitant fees paid by the May 1st We Are One America Committee.
The plaintiffs are represented by ACLU cooperating attorney Frank Goldsmith of Goldsmith, Goldsmith & Dews, P.A. in Marion, North Carolina.
The complaint is available at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/27168lgl20061003.html
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.