ACLU of New Jersey Successfully Defends Free Speech for Peace Activist

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
March 20, 2007 12:00 am

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Charges Dismissed Against Resident Who Held Vigil for Fallen Soldiers

NEWARK – A New Jersey Superior Court judge today dismissed charges against Bob Flisser, who was arrested in Flemington for participating in a public vigil for fallen soldiers without obtaining a permit. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, representing Flisser, argued that Flemington’s “parade” permit ordinance violated numerous free speech protections and was applied discriminatorily. Flemington officials agreed to the dismissal.

“I am pleased that the borough of Flemington finally realized that it makes more sense to stand up for free speech than to stand against it,” said Flisser. “I am hopeful that the town will now take prompt action to change the ordinance so that the same problems do not arise again.”

When Flisser received word that peace groups around the country were holding vigils on August 17, 2005 for fallen soldiers, he went to the Flemington police station to inform officers that he would be holding a vigil. Flisser planned to hold the vigil at the sidewalk plaza in front of the courthouse on Main Street in Flemington, a location where free speech activities have traditionally taken place in town. He anticipated that fewer than two dozen people would show up and that the plaza was large enough to accommodate his group without blocking any right of way for pedestrians. The police refused to even consider his application, citing a town ordinance that gives police full discretion to reject permit requests made less than six days before an event. Nevertheless, the vigil took place as planned, about 24 people showed up, and Flisser was subsequently arrested and charged with violating Flemington’s parade ordinance. No other vigil participant was arrested.

Flisser was found guilty in Flemington Municipal Court on November 27, 2006. The court imposed a $100 fine, which it suspended, and $33 in court costs. The ACLU of New Jersey appealed on Flisser’s behalf to the Superior Court. Citing fiscal reasons and uncertainty of the outcome of Flisser’s appeal, Flemington officials today agreed to dismiss the charges against Flisser.

“This is more than a personal victory for Mr. Flisser and for what he has had to go through. This is a victory for freedom of speech and for everyone in Flemington who participates in it,” said Fernando M. Pinguelo of Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. in Bridgewater, who, along with Richard A. Norris and Jignesh J. Shah, are the ACLU of New Jersey cooperating attorneys representing Flisser.

Flisser’s attorneys said that the parade ordinance threatens free speech because it covers much more activity than is constitutionally permissible and makes no accommodation for spontaneous speech. It covers “any parade, march, ceremony, show, exhibition, pageant or procession of any kind, or any similar display in or upon any street, park or other public place.” To be eligible for a permit, an application must be submitted at least six days before an event. The chief of police has unfettered discretion to waive these requirements, as the parade ordinance provides no guidelines for deciding whether to grant exemptions.

“Flemington’s ordinance is written so broadly that Christmas carolers, trick-or-treaters, people tossing a Frisbee in the park, or even two kids skateboarding together would have to obtain permission from the government to do so,” said Pinguelo.

The ACLU of New Jersey has successfully challenged similar municipal parade ordinances in the past.

The case dismissed today is Borough of Flemington v. Robert Flisser.

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