Federal Court to Hear Arguments in ACLU Challenge to Miami's High Security Fees for Controversial Concert

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
December 12, 2002 12:00 am

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MIAMI — A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments Monday in an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida case challenging the constitutionality of security fees imposed by Miami officials on a promoter for the 1999 concert by the Cuban band Los Van Van that attracted thousands of anti-Castro protestors.

“The city doesn’t have a right to impose a fee on freedom of speech and increase the price tag for any speech that attracts demonstrators,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida.

At issue is whether the Miami Police Department was lawfully entitled to charge concert promoter Debbie Ohanian approximately $35,000 in fees to provide outdoor security during the October 9, 1999 concert held at the Miami Arena. Although she agreed with the city that police presence outside the arena was necessary because of the threat of protests by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, Ohanian objected to having to cover the security costs herself. She paid the fees “under protest” so the concert could go on without incident.

Filed in March 2000, the ACLU lawsuit seeks to recover the high security fees, claiming the city had an obligation to provide security to maintain the public order during the protests. The ACLU maintains that the First Amendment protects music as a form of expression and prohibits the government from arbitrarily charging fees to maintain public order.

The ACLU arguments are supported by a 1992 Supreme Court case, Forsyth County, Ga. v. Nationalist Movement, in which the Justices affirmed that “speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”

Although the city has agree that police presence was, in fact, necessary to maintain public order during the protests, its attorneys argue that Ohanian agreed to pay for security costs as part of her contract with the Miami Arena management to bring Los Van Van to the arena.

“The Miami Police Department responded to the presence of protestors by providing an unprecedented SWAT team paramilitary presence to protect the band members and the approximately 2000 people who attended the festive, yet otherwise peaceful concert,” said Simon. “The city had an equal responsibility to respect the First Amendment rights of the protestors.”

The case, Ohanian v. City of Miami, No. 00-1114, will be heard before United States District Judge Joan A. Lenard. ACLU cooperating attorneys Beverly Pohl and Bruce Rogow of Fort Lauderdale will argue the case.

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