FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BALTIMORE--Saying that laws here that govern public demonstrations may violate free speech rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of members of an anti-war group who assemble in the popular Inner Harbor area for weekly, silent vigils.
"The Inner Harbor is the quintessential public square," said Rajeev Goyle, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. "It is the most visible spot in downtown Baltimore and the natural place for people exercising their free speech rights to gather and voice their ideas."
The ACLU lawsuit challenges the city's practice of requiring permits for small groups of demonstrators and the unnecessarily long advance notice requirements (up to eight weeks), which stifle timely demonstrations intended to respond to current events. The lawsuit also asserts that under the First Amendment, speech that does not trigger the government's interest in crowd control cannot be burdened by government regulation.
The lawsuit, Cunningham v. Flowers, was filed on behalf of five women who are part of the Baltimore chapter of the anti-war group Women in Black. Police last week broke up a small demonstration, saying that the women were assembled illegally because they had not obtained a permit. After learning of the lawsuit, Baltimore City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer, Jr. agreed to suspend for 180 days the permit requirement for all demonstrations with 25 or fewer people.
The city's agreement to temporarily suspend permit requirements for small groups makes it possible for Women in Black to stand in their customary spot this Friday without fear of arrest, said the ACLU. The women intend to return to the Inner Harbor for their weekly vigil in the coming weeks as well.
"The City Solicitor did the right thing under the U.S. Constitution," said Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland. "He affirmed that what distinguishes this country from many others is the right of free speech, even for those who may disagree with government policies."
Before last Friday and since December 2001, Women in Black held 14 vigils on public sidewalks in the Inner Harbor area without incident, Goering noted. However an officer at the scene told demonstrators that while the vigils had not been a problem in the past, someone had complained and he was forced to take action. Goering said Friday's confrontation with law enforcement officials highlights both the unconstitutionality of the permit scheme and the selective enforcement of that permit plan.
The ACLU has periodically received complaints of free speech restrictions in the Inner Harbor section. Specifically, individuals have complained about the application process at the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks for onerous permits required of those who seek to engage in free speech activity in the Inner Harbor.
A copy of the complaint is online at /node/34980