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Burlington Backs Off Plans to Restrict Public Assembly

Local Matters


Published January 17, 2006 at 11:39 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- The idea for a comprehensive public-assembly law has been quietly brewing in city departments for years. But less than two weeks after a proposal hit the streets, it ran into a major roadblock.

Last week, Mayor Peter Clavelle announced he's backing off from a proposed ordinance that would have placed new conditions on public assembly on city streets and sidewalks, particularly on the Church Street Marketplace and outside City Hall. As currently written, the new law would require a permit for any public protest, street parade, block party or athletic event. It would also require event organizers to pay a $50 nonrefundable application fee and give the city at least 60 days notice prior to any gathering expected to draw more than 100 people, or 72 hours for smaller events.

But following a firestorm of criticism, including from some city councilors, the mayor said the proposal will go back to the drawing board for further review and revision.

The nine-page ordinance was roundly condemned by activists and civil libertarians from across the state, who were shocked and outraged that a city with a long and proud history of political dissent would even consider adopting such a measure.

"This seems to be all my phone is ringing about in the last few days," says Chris Meehan, executive director of the Peace and Justice Center. She adds that charging a $50 application fee would be unduly burdensome on small, grassroots groups and would be like "putting a price on free speech."

Meehan is also troubled that the two-month notice requirement would squelch spontaneous protests such as those that occurred in Burlington after the re-election of George W. Bush and the revelations about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Moreover, she fears that placing additional restrictions on where marches can occur is dangerously close to establishing "free speech zones" like those set up for protesters at the 2004 political conventions.

"Our message should be in the mainstream, not relegated to some remote corner of Burlington," Meehan says. "How far away will that corner get pushed, and where else in Burlington is it going to happen?"

Burlington Deputy Police Chief Walt Decker defends the proposed ordinance. He insists it would not encroach upon the public's rights to free assembly but would clarify and standardize the existing ordinance. Decker contends that this proposal was meant to streamline the process for planning events by creating a "one-stop shop" for organizers, and that it would help police, fire, public works and the Church Street Marketplace better coordinate city services.

According to Decker, at least 35 to 50 major events are held in downtown Burlington each year -- including First Run, the Mardi Gras parade, Gay Pride and the Latino Fest -- for which the police department bills out about $100,000 in additional expenses for security, traffic control, overtime and special enforcement. Some of those events are organized by individuals and groups from outside Burlington and Chittenden County, he notes, for which Burlington taxpayers foot the bill.

Decker says his department worked hard to help draft an ordinance that would still allow for "the vast majority" of public events to occur, while also creating a fair, impartial and content-neutral mechanism for modifying or denying applications for events scheduled at times and places when the city cannot provide adequate public protection.

For example, Decker points out that the city was sued several years ago after a runner in the 1998 marathon was struck by an elderly motorist on a city street that was supposedly closed. The lawsuit alleged that the city hadn't adequately provided safety resources to protect the runner. This ordinance would help prevent conflicts with other scheduled events, such as street maintenances, as well as unforeseen activities, such as counter-demonstrations.

Decker adds that his department will continue to recognize the value and importance of spontaneous protest and doesn't want to stifle free speech in any way.

"We understand the rich political history in this city and an active citizen population," he says. "If there are national and international matters that require an immediate response from citizens, we understand that. But we also want to have a mechanism where we set some guidelines and have a reasonable and safe way to do that."

But Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, is troubled by these justifications for limiting free assembly and public discourse.

"There seems to be a trend nationally that government feels protest and dissent are inconvenient or expensive," Gilbert says. "Particularly now, we really do need more people to speak out on issues, not to have their speech rights chilled."