ACLU Plans Appeal on Behalf of New Jersey Peace Vigil Organizer

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
November 27, 2006 12:00 am


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Flemington, NJ Permit Ordinance Violates Free Speech, ACLU Says

FLEMINGTON, N.J. – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced that it will appeal the decision of Flemington Municipal Court Judge John Petronko Jr., who earlier today found peace advocate Robert Flisser guilty for organizing a “Fallen Solder Vigil” without a permit on August 17, 2005. The ACLU and Flisser contend that Flemington’s permit requirements violate freedom of speech and are applied discriminatorily.

The court imposed a fine of $100, which will be suspended, and $33 in court costs.

“We shouldn’t require government permission every time we want to speak out peacefully in public,” said Flisser. “Our soldiers take an oath to defend the Constitution when they enlist, so it’s sad to realize that the government is taking away the very rights they risk their lives to uphold.”

When Flisser received word that peace groups around the country were holding vigils for fallen soldiers and their families, he went to the Flemington police station to inform officers, as a courtesy, that he would be holding a vigil in front of the Hunterdon County Courthouse on Main Street in Flemington. He anticipated that the vigil would draw fewer than two-dozen people and that the chosen space was large enough to accommodate his group. Flemington police refused to decide or even consider whether to grant Flisser a permit. Nevertheless, Flisser carried out the vigil, which drew about 25 participants. He was then arrested, handcuffed, hauled away in a police cruiser with lights ablaze, and charged with violating Flemington’s parade ordinance.

“Flemington’s ordinance is written so broadly that Christmas carolers, trick-or-treaters, people tossing a Frisbee in the park, or even two kids skateboarding together would have to obtain permission from the government to do so,” said Fernando M. Pinguelo of the Bridgewater law firm Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A., who, along with Richard A. Norris and Jignesh J. Shah, represent Flisser pro bono on behalf of the ACLU.

“Mr. Flisser attempted to honor America’s sons and daughters who paid the ultimate price defending our freedom. But the police crushed that very freedom – an action that dishonors the sacrifice our soldiers make,” Pinguelo added.

The ACLU argued that the Flemington “parade” ordinance is vague and violates numerous free speech protections. It threatens free speech because it covers much more activity than is constitutionally permissible and makes no accommodation for spontaneous speech. The ordinance is so broad that people would need permits – obtained six days in advance – for almost any form of activity or speech, even if engaged by a single person.

During the trial, Flemington police officials defended the arrest of Flisser, citing public safety concerns. Flisser explained that the event was a silent vigil in front of the Hunterdon County Courthouse, a location where such free speech activities have traditionally taken place.

The Flemington ordinance covers “any parade, march, ceremony, show, exhibition, pageant or procession of any kind, or any similar display in or upon any street, park or other public place.” An application must be submitted at least six days before an event to be eligible for a permit. The Flemington chief of police may waive the notice requirement at his discretion, as the ordinance provides no guidelines for deciding whether to grant an exemption.

The case is Borough of Flemington v. Robert Flisser.

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