Village Cannot Impose Prohibitive Insurance Requirement as Condition of Free Speech, NYCLU Warns

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
August 24, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union today urged the village of Bellport to drop an arbitrary and unconstitutional requirement that any group wishing to march on the street must purchase $2 million in insurance and indemnify Bellport from liability as a condition of receiving a permit.

“A group’s right to free speech should not be contingent upon its ability to pay extraordinary insurance fees,” said Dolores Bilges, Executive Director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the NYCLU.

The NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter sent a letter to the village of Bellport on behalf of the Suffolk County Peace Group, which has organized a peaceful procession and vigil to commemorate the victims of Hiroshima and to condemn the proliferation of nuclear weapons for the past 23 years.

Bellport has always granted the Peace Group a permit for the procession, which has consisted of a peaceful walk through the streets of the village. As the group’s coordinators prepared for this year’s event, which took place August 6, Bellport informed the group that it would be denied a permit to march unless it secured $2 million of liability insurance coverage and signed an indemnification agreement exempting Bellport from any potential liability.

The group was unable to secure such insurance coverage and therefore was forced to march without a permit or police escort on the path next to the road. The group said that the path’s unevenness and narrowness makes the route hazardous and its removal from the road reduces the prominence and visibility of the procession. The group seeks assurances that in coming years it will be able to get a parade permit, which would allow it to march on the roadway again.

“The South County Peace Group’s annual procession and vigil is a classic form of ideological expression,” said Stan Gewanter, President of the Suffolk County Chapter of the NYCLU. “Such expression is entitled to protection under the First Amendment. The imposition of the insurance requirement on a group wishing to carry out such expression is a substantial and unconstitutional burden upon the group’s right to free speech. If we cannot resolve this matter, we will have no alternative but to take Bellport to court.

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