MCLU Asks Supreme Court To Reject Augusta's $2,000 Fee for Protest March As Violation of Free Speech Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
May 29, 2008 12:00 am

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PORTLAND, Maine. – Yesterday, the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation asked the US Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the fees of about $2,000 imposed on marchers by the City of Augusta. The request came in the form of a petition for a writ of certiorari — a mechanism for the Supreme Court to review decisions of lower courts across the country-for the case of Sullivan, et al. v. City of Augusta, a case originally filed by the MCLU in 2004.

The lower court in question in this case is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, which last year upheld Augusta’s parade fee provision even as applied to individuals who could not afford the fee.

“Our country was founded on the principle that democracy can survive only if we insist on unrestricted and vigorous public discussion of important issues,” said MCLU Cooperating Counsel David Webbert, with the firm of Johnson & Webbert, L.L.P., who is lead counsel in the case. “It is a fundamental violation of the First Amendment for Augusta to discourage protest marches by charging large fees that only the wealthy can afford.”

The case was brought on behalf of Timothy Sullivan and Larry Dansinger, two individuals who sought to organize marches on the streets of the Maine capital, but who had to cancel their plans in the face of approximately $2,000.00 traffic control fees, which they could not afford. U.S. District Court Judge John A. Woodcock, Jr. found in favor of Sullivan and Dansinger, writing that, “To block indigents from using the public streets to convey their message, by pointing out channels of communication that may be used free of charge, but are inadequate, is unconstitutional. It is the equivalent of a determination that those who cannot afford to pay the fee either have a less important message to convey or must convey it in a less effective way.”

The Court of Appeals reversed that decision on the fees issue, but one
judge on that court-Judge Kermit Lipez, of Maine-dissented from the
panel’s holding, observing that, “An individual who seeks a permit to
disseminate a message about matters of public concern in a traditional
public forum is thus exerting free speech rights that not only are
explicitly promised by the Constitution but also are of value to the
community as a whole.”

“The core of First Amendment protection is the right to public speech on matters of public concern,” said MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden, who is co-counsel in the case. “We all benefit, as a democracy, when everyone has a chance to participate in the important debates of our time, whether it is war, economic justice, or civil rights protection.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on this request in the fall.
If the Court grants review, it would hear the case during the October
2008 term. In addition to Webbert and Heiden, lawyers in the case are Lynne Williams of Bar Harbor and Steven R. Shapiro, National Legal Director of the ACLU.

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