ACLU Sues Pennsylvania Township After Officials Send Protesters $3,000 Bill For Peaceful March

March 11, 2004 12:00 am

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HARRISBURG, PA- A town’s attempt to collect more than $3,000 in parade permit fees from three dozen peaceful protesters violates basic free speech rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania charged today in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

ACLU lawyers have asked for an emergency hearing today in U.S. District Court to block officials in Springettsbury Township — a town of 24,000 located southeast of the state capital – from assessing high police security fees to demonstrators, requiring them to sign an indemnification agreement, and prohibiting protests on less than 30 days’ notice.

“Political demonstrations on public streets and sidewalks have played a vital role in American history, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras,” said ACLU staff attorney Paula K. Knudsen. “With one of the nation’s largest federal immigration detention centers located in Springettsbury and the controversy over how Muslims and Arabs are being treated, the right to protest must be guarded vigilantly.”

The ACLU lawsuit also asks the court to prohibit the Township from seeking to collect on a $3,064.47 bill issued to protester Keith Dobson in February. Dobson was the sponsor of a peaceful rally in December 2003 that featured about three dozen people chanting and singing on public property along a roadside in front of the county prison.

“Charging three thousand dollars for a rally involving three dozen people is insane,” said Dobson. “If free speech is to remain alive in Springettsbury, the Township’s fees must be thrown out.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed and won a nearly identical challenge against Pittsburgh officials in October 2003, Knudsen noted. In that case, U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti declared the city’s parade-permit law unconstitutional and issued an injunction against its enforcement. Since then, Judge Flowers has twice rejected Pittsburgh’s attempt to lift the injunction, most recently on February 27, 2004.

The case, Dobson v. Springettsbury Township, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. In addition to Knudsen, Witold Walczak, Litigation Director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, is co-counsel in the case. The Coalition for Immigrants’ Rights at the Community Level (CIRCLE) and People for Peace & Justice of York, PA are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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