Why There Must Never Be a Speech and Assembly Tax

A historic level of activism and protest has been seen in our nation’s streets and public parks over the past two years. These protests reflect the profound importance of our constitutional right to peaceful assembly: People come together, voice their dissent, and organize for change. The right to join with neighbors in protest is core to the First Amendment and critical to a healthy and vibrant democracy.

On Jan. 20, 2018, thousands of people gathered on Cambridge Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the second Women’s March. As in hundreds of other cities around the world, the Cambridge event was organized in protest of the Trump administration’s attacks on the civil rights of women and other marginalized people. The event was peaceful, with a light police presence.

And yet, Cambridge event organizers were billed for thousands of dollars for police details and emergency medical services. They were also told to expect additional invoices for police from neighboring cities and towns and the local transit system.

Despite successfully completing the permitting process and paying permit application fees before the event, organizers were told less than two weeks before the event that they could be additionally charged for public safety services. That discussion happened after the organizers mentioned to police that there could be counter-protesters present at the event.

Charging rally organizers for public safety services as a condition for granting permits deters political participation — plain and simple. Most event organizers would think twice about coordinating a protest if they thought they might owe $4,000, like the Cambridge Women’s March organizers ultimately owed. In fact, the Cambridge organizers flagged the bills to the ACLU for that very reason. They feared the impact of the city’s practices on the exercise of free speech of all who seek permits for the Cambridge Common and other public parks.

The First Amendment and the free speech guarantee of the Massachusetts Constitution exist to prevent precisely this sort of chilling effect.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Forsyth County, Georgia v. The Nationalist Movement in 1992, governmental charges for basic public safety services that are based on the anticipated reaction to expressive events in public parks are inconsistent with the First Amendment — and in this particular case, the free speech and assembly provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution. Since public safety services benefit not just event organizers, but also passersby or counter-protesters, charges for their cost are not a lawful fee but rather an unlawful tax on speech and assembly under Massachusetts law.

That is why the ACLU of Massachusetts recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Cambridge, challenging its policy and the Women’s March charges. At a time when the federal government is inciting division and seeking to chill free speech, the voices of rally organizers and participants should be encouraged and applauded — not taxed.

From the Women’s March to recent Families Belong Together rallies to the Occupy movement, peaceful assembly in public parks has been a proud part of this country’s history and constitutional tradition. That’s why we’re fighting to say: Taxes on free speech and assembly is about as un-American as you can get.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

That's Taxachusetts for you.

Anonymous

How is it "taxachusetts" when the rally organizers are the ones being charged? The alternative would be that the taxpayer foot the bill for the police presence. And nobody should be discouraged from exercising any speech for want of money; paying via taxes for basic law enforcement at a rally I don't support is a small price to ensure a society that guarantees free speech anywhere at any time.

Kevin Fields

Yes, taxpayers should be footing the bill. the police forces there to serve the entire public, including the public that is protesting. You don't levy additional taxes on a group of people in exchange for their right to protest.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Are you from Boston Mr. Anonymous? Because if you are, you can take your response and stick it up your Back Bay.

Anonymous

This case is a great example of the difference between an American "constitutional rule of law" model of government versus a foreign style "authoritarian" model. In the American style model, presidents are legally restrained by the Judicial Branch courts, so if our system were working properly the costs would have been charged to Trump himself (for violating the law). In a foreign style authoritarian model, the president is above the law and the police would send the bills to the protesters. Chronology is important here, Trump violated the court ruling on constitutional rights, the protesters were on the right side of the law - why should they pay a dime since Trump instigated the protest? If Trump had followed the "constitutional rule of law" there would never had been a protest requiring police and government services.

Anonymous

In a foreign authoritarian model, you wouldn't be able to hold a protest, period. And if you tried, you wouldn't be sent a bill, but sent to jail, or worse.

Scott C

Trump is the one these protests are about. He's the one who should get the bill!

Anonymous

Good article, but ending with a non-specific assertion of federal efforts to chill free speech is bad form. There is no “at a time when...” regarding free speech. It should be free for all, anytime, anywhere. Applies to nazis and skinheads equally to pascifists and feminists.

ACLU needs to defend free speech as an absolute and abandon their post-Charlottesville policy of conditional support of free speech.

Bennett Wilson

Why did you pay this anonymously? This is exactly the sort of freedom to founders righteously sought. And this is what the ACLU has been fighting for for a hundred years to defend. I can only pray that the ACLU and the United States uphold that legacy.

Anonymous

So who is to foot the bill for these protests if it isn’t the organizers themselves? The taxpayers ithats who! Why should anyone pay for a protest especially when they agree with the cause? Making organizations pay for their protests isn’t restricting free speech, they still get to protest but they have to pay the city for all the costs involved and that’s only fair. The citizens of that community didn’t ask for these people to protest. This is being done by people who have decided to raise Cain for issues that not everyone agrees with.

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