City of Augusta: Pay-to-protest policy targets anti-war rally
Elections can be quite expensive, but we have them anyway. As fitful and ragged as democracy sometimes is, there has yet to be a case in which an election in the United States has been canceled in order to save the taxpayers money. After all, without elections there is no democracy.
It is no exaggeration to say that without protest there is no democracy, either. But try telling that to city officials in Augusta, Maine. This past March, they attempted to charge anti-war organizations about $11,800 for the privilege of protesting against the war in Iraq on the streets of their fair city ó the state capital, and thus the most visible forum for free expression in all of Maine.
"The city of Augusta in no way is attempting to discourage the full exercise of freedom of expression," City Manager William Bridgeo told the Kennebec Journal. "We are only concerned that as people and groups come into Augusta, sufficient control of large groups exists to prevent public-safety hazards. If well-meaning people inadvertently are blocking the streets so emergency vehicles cannot get through, then thatís an untenable situation." Please.
Fortunately, federal district-court judge John Woodcock threw out $10,000 of the proposed fees on constitutional grounds, money that was to be posted as an insurance bond in case anything went wrong. Among other things, Woodcock objected to the fact that the police chief could take into account the nature and content of a particular demonstration in deciding whether to charge an insurance bond ó a grotesque violation of free-speech rights. But the financially strapped peace organizations still had to come up with some $1800 to pay for police details and clean-up costs. It was as though you had to pay a fee to cover your share of overtime in your city or town clerkís office whenever you cast a ballot.
And in what should have been a surprise to no one, 1000 men, women, and children took part in the anti-war March for Truth on three of Augustaís busiest streets on Saturday, March 20, without causing trouble for anyone.
Now comes the quest for a refund ó a vital step in order to avoid setting a dangerous precedent. "Augusta is the state capital. If the city charges a lot for a march, Martin Luther King never would have been able to have a march here," organizer Timothy Sullivan told the Journal. He added that the fee would have "a chilling effect on free speech."
Zach Heiden, a staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, told Muzzle Central that he expects the case will go to trial in early 2005. Calling the fee requirement "outrageous," Heiden said, "Itís saying that if you donít have enough money in the bank, you canít exercise your constitutional rights." Between now and the trial, he added, he hopes to educate the courts as to "why marches are so important. For many organizations, getting out on the streets is the only way to influence their decision-makers."
Donald Carcieri: RI govís bill would have stifled dissent
February was a very bad month for Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri. It could have been an even worse month for the Bill of Rights. Slipped into a homeland-security bill that Carcieri had proposed were some shocking provisions, including the revival of World War IĖvintage statutes making it illegal to advocate anarchy, to call for the overthrow of the government, or to display any alternative to the American flag with the intention of making a protest or other symbolic statement.
According to one analysis, it would have been at least technically possible to land in prison for 10 years if you displayed a Confederate flag ó or, for that matter, a US flag with a peace sign, rather than stars, in the field of blue. On a more mundane level, Carcieriís bill would have shielded certain fire-safety records from public view, purportedly so that terrorists would not be able to make use of them. The practical effect, as critics pointed out, was that if such a law had been in effect it would have been harder to reconstruct the events that led to the Station nightclub fire.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, called it "an extraordinarily dangerous bill."
Playing a particularly vital role in derailing Carcieriís mind-blowingly misguided proposal was the Providence Journal. On February 19 ó just one day after reporting the details of the legislation ó the Journal published a package of articles showing how the measure would weaken the First Amendmentís "Five Freedoms" ó freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. "What Governor Carcieri proposes is to take the state of Rhode Island back 200 years," Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Virginia-based Freedom Forum, told the Journal. "Dissent is at the heart of democratic freedoms. From Roger Williams on, Rhode Island has always been at the forefront of championing freedom of speech in general and political discourse specifically."
Later that day, Carcieri backed off. Not that the governor covered himself in any glory. According to the Journalís account, "Carcieri said he had not read the bill that his staff wrote before he made it public, but he received a briefing." Itís hard to say which is worse ó that the governor would seek to blame such a monumental mistake on his staff rather than taking responsibility for it himself; or that he would neglect to read such an important piece of legislation before foisting it upon an unsuspecting public. After all, it was only 18 pages long.
Itís possible that some good will come out of this fiasco. After Carcieri withdrew his odious proposal, the Rhode Island ACLU and state representative Fausto Anguilla, a Bristol Democrat, announced an effort to repeal a number of anti-liberty laws, many of them dating back to the 19th century.
"The Governorís recent bill led to serious reflection by constitutional scholars on the validity of a number of archaic statutes," Anguilla said in a statement. "What has been found are statutes that fail to meet contemporary constitutional standards and that have not been enforced in modern times. It is important that our General Laws embody the bedrock principle of American democracy as set forth in the First Amendment, protecting our freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press."
Nevertheless, it remains discouraging that this effort was undertaken only after the current governor tried to set off a new wave of repression.page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 page 6
Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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