ACLU Urges Wisconsin Police Chief to Work with Protesters to Protect Safety and Freedom

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
September 1, 2004 12:00 am

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Letter to Chief Criticizes Police Conduct at Rally for President Bush in May

MILWAUKEE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said today that it has sent a letter to Chief Edward Kondracki of the La Crosse Police Department criticizing police conduct that may have chilled protesters’ free speech at a campaign rally for President George W. Bush in May.

The ACLU urged the chief, who has taken a combative tone with the protesters, to engage in a constructive public dialogue about how to best protect the safety of political figures and citizens while preserving the liberties of those who engage in demonstrations.

The ACLU’s letter singled out three police practices employed during the May 7 rally that infringed on protesters’ freedoms of speech and association.

First, a police captain distributed to protesters, but not to a marching band warming up a few yards away, excerpts from an article in a 1961 issue of the Missouri Municipal Review that suggested that making “loud and raucous” noise could be subject to prosecution. The ACLU letter notes that this article, unlike a neutral noise ordinance, “is not enforceable by the La Crosse Police Department,” and “could have served no purpose other than to silence protesters.” The ACLU also called the captain’s distribution of the article to protesters but not to the marching band an example of an unconstitutional “content-based” application of noise restrictions.

The ACLU also criticized the police department’s videotaping of protesters, saying such videotaping can have a chilling effect on the exercise of first amendment rights. “Protesters may wonder, and not without reason, whether their images are being compiled into law enforcement ‘dossiers’ or black-lists that will be used against them,” the letter said.

Finally, the ACLU expressed concern about a police request that a protester take down a sign bearing a four-letter word and warned the police about attempting to punish such allegedly “offensive” political speech. The First Amendment protects even “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” the ACLU said, quoting the Supreme Court.

The ACLU expressed particular alarm about Chief Kondracki’s response to protesters’ complaints about how they were treated on May 7. In an August 12, 2004 letter, Chief Kondracki accused the protesters of trespassing and “obstructing” police business by filing allegedly frivolous complaints. The chief’s letter, in bold type, pointedly refers to the possibility that the protesters could be prosecuted for these alleged “crimes.” The ACLU said prosecution of the protesters for filing a complaint would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ACLU letter concluded by urging Chief Kondracki to “commence a meaningful and respectful public discussion about how the La Crosse Police Department can best protect safety and freedom at future events in this election season.”

The letter is online at /node/34992

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