ACLU and Rights Groups Challenge Ft. Lauderdale "No-Protest" Zone During June OAS Meeting

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
May 20, 2005 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Florida
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: media@aclu.org

FT LAUDERDALE — The Broward Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee and Southern Legal Counsel today filed a lawsuit challenging a “no-protest” zone and other restrictions limiting free speech during upcoming protests at the Organization of American States ministerial meetings in Ft. Lauderdale.

“The government’s mile-wide ‘security perimeter’ keeps protesters out-of-sight and out-of-mind, and essentially sends a message that people’s fundamental right to express themselves is no longer tolerated,” said Broward ACLU Legal Panel Co-Chair Zeina Salam, who is serving as an ACLU cooperating attorney on this case.

The lawsuit, which challenges several provisions of the Ft. Lauderdale Municipal Code, was filed on behalf of several groups, including the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, Haiti Solidarity and the Broward Anti-War Coalition. The groups have planned demonstrations at the general assembly meetings scheduled for June 5-7 at the Broward County Convention Center.

The groups argue that city and county officials are imposing unconstitutional restrictions on free speech by creating a sweeping security perimeter around the convention center, essentially prohibiting protesters from coming closer than a distance of approximately seven football fields from the meeting site inside Port Everglades.

The lawsuit also challenges an emergency “Parade and Public Assembly” ordinance that gives police excessive leeway to decide what people can take to rallies, making practically any prop that someone may use for political expression a criminal weapon.

“This ordinance gives police officers unfettered discretion to decide when and how to enforce the ordinance,” said Salam. “It’s yet another tactic to unlawfully stop, search, and arrest people who are going to be exercising their First Amendment rights by sharing their political views about government policies.”

A similar ordinance was enacted prior to the November 2003 Free Trade Areas of the Americas ministerial meeting in downtown Miami. The ACLU argued the ordinance was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech and urged city officials to redraft the law to comply with constitutional free speech protections. The city ultimately repealed the ordinance in early 2004.

The lawsuit also challenges an archaic permitting process — adopted in 1953 — that imposes lengthy advance filing requirements for protected expression, without setting any standards that outline under what conditions permits will be granted, how long public officials should take to grant a permit and how much insurance or security costs may be imposed.

The complaint charges that: “The absences of any standards ? means that the ordinance vests public officials with unbridled discretion and invites content-based decisions based on the nature of the speaker.”

The lawsuit was filed against the City of Ft. Lauderdale and Broward County, which owns and operates the Convention Center.

In addition to Salam of the ACLU, Randall Marshall, Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Florida also serves as legal counsel in this case, as well as: Robert Ross, Mara Shlackman, and Carol Sobel for the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee; Southern Legal Counsel, Inc. attorneys Andrea Costello (also with the National Lawyers Guild) and Alice Nelson.

The complaint is online at: http://www.aclufl.org/issues/free_speech/OASComplaintFINAL.pdf.

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