Free Speech Rights Significantly Expanded in Baltimore's Inner Harbor

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
October 16, 2013 2:54 pm

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BALTIMORE – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland today announced that a settlement has been completed in a lawsuit challenging Baltimore City’s rules governing free speech activities in City parks. Prior to the suit, the rules had required that even a single person engaging in free speech activities in any City park had to first get a permit from the Office of Recreation and Parks, and had severely limited where in the Inner Harbor demonstrators could congregate and leaflet. Brought on behalf of the Women in Black, a peace group that holds weekly silent protests opposing war and violence, the agreement represents a significant expansion of First Amendment rights.

“It’s a banner day for free speech rights in Baltimore, because the opportunities to rally, protest, leaflet, and stand vigil have been significantly expanded not only at the Inner Harbor but also in many parks throughout the city,” said David Rocah, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “We are proud of the Women In Black for being the catalyst for this long overdue improvement.”

“We think everyone has won with this settlement, and are proud to have helped create a space for peaceful demonstrations in the City,” said Betsy Cunnigham, an organizer of the Women in Black weekly peace vigils. “We think this settlement is particularly important for demonstrators with fewer monetary resources, who no longer need to fear being shut out of the public square.”

The City has agreed to a consent decree in which it has completely rewritten the rules governing free speech activities in City parks, created new “instant permits” for spontaneous demonstrations, and will conduct training for Rec and Parks staff and Baltimore City police on the new rules, and create a clear and publicly accessible summary of the rules for use by the public.

The settlement negotiations in Cunningham v. Flowers, filed in 2003, were prolonged partly because the ACLU pushed to negotiate a complete rewrite of the City’s rules governing free speech activities in the Inner Harbor, as well as several other large City parks, rather than just eliminate the permit requirement for small groups.

Highlights from the settlement:

  • No permit is needed for small group demonstrations (30 people or less) in all City Parks.

  • For larger demonstrations where a permit is needed, the permit must be submitted only 2 days in advance (the old rules required permits to be submitted 30 days in advance), and the 2 day period must be waived to permit protestors to respond to current events.

  • The rules now provide that demonstration permit fees will be waived for any person or group that attests that they cannot afford them (no further proof is required).

  • Battery operated megaphones can be used without a special permit.

  • Leafletting by up to 30 people at a time is permitted throughout the Inner Harbor, with very limited exceptions, without the need for a permit.

  • New spaces for demonstrating, beyond McKeldin Square, are opened up in the Inner Harbor, including Rash Field, Kaufman Pavilion, the area West of the Visitor Center, and Area 10 (the grass field between the World Trade Center and Aquarium). In addition, the rules make clear that Broadway Square, Canton Waterfront Park, and Harris Creek Park are also available for demonstrations.

  • The rules now provide for “instant permits” to be issued immediately on site (in the areas above, and in War Memorial Plaza) if a group engages in a demonstration in a permitted area without advance notice and without a permit, as long as the demonstration can be accommodated with the resources available, and as long as there is not other group with a permit to use the same space at the same time.

The settlement also requires the City to pay the ACLU’s attorneys’ fees for bringing the civil rights suit, which the Board of Estimates is expected to approve today.

The Court will retain jurisdiction over the case to enforce compliance with the consent decree.

Rocah said that the new rules should serve as a model for other jurisdictions, many of which have out of date rules that the ACLU says do not comply with constitutional limits on when permits may be required for demonstrations or leafleting. “We hope that this settlement will prompt other jurisdictions to review their demonstration rules, and revise them in line with Baltimore’s new policies,” Rocah said.

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