Top Court Gets Case on Park Use

Top Court Gets Case on Park Use
Posted by FoM on December 03, 2001 at 13:38:05 PT
By Judy Peres and Glen Elsasser
Source: Chicago Tribune
The specter of a 1960s-style political activist will visit the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, when the justices hear arguments in a case that could profoundly affect Americans' right to free speech.Robert MacDonald, who died two years ago at age 36, became a minor celebrity in Chicago during the 1990s. He was arrested for mob action as part of the so-called Chicago 5 (all of whom were later acquitted) while protesting alleged police brutality during the 1996 Democratic National Convention. But he probably is best remembered as the organizer of Hempfest, an annual event calling for the legalization of marijuana.
In 1997, however, the Chicago Park District denied MacDonald a permit to hold his accustomed rally in Grant Park. The Park District said MacDonald had violated the terms of prior permits. Among other things, it said some protesters drank alcoholic beverages and remained in the park after hours.MacDonald, who denied responsibility for any infractions, said the district was muzzling him and sued for violation of his 1st Amendment free-speech rights, saying "denial of a permit to hold a rally is the ultimate censorship."MacDonald died while his case was making its way through the federal court system. A judge allowed a fellow activist, Caren Thomas, and the Windy City Hemp Development Board to substitute as plaintiffs.The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled last year for the Park District.In an opinion by Judge Richard Posner, the appeals court recognized the "danger in giving officials broad discretion over which political rallies shall be permitted . . . because they will be tempted to exercise that discretion in favor of their political friends . . . and the advocates of legalizing the sale of marijuana . . . have very few political friends."Nevertheless, Posner wrote, "A park is a limited space, and to allow unregulated access to all comers could easily reduce rather than enlarge the park's utility as a forum for speech."The Hemp Development Board then appealed to the Supreme Court, which is being asked to decide the constitutionality of the Park District's procedures for granting permits for gatherings.The board contends the Park District's refusal to let it hold a rally was a prior restraint of protected speech. It says the district's "unfettered discretion" to decide who can use the public parks allows it to discriminate against those with unpopular political views.The Park District, for its part, says it was exercising its legal authority in denying the 1997 permit, not abridging freedom of speech."The Park District ordinance predominantly regulates non-expressive conduct," such as sporting events and peddling food in the city's 552 parks, the district argued in its brief. The park-permit scheme is "part of a comprehensive effort to manage a complex and intensively used system of urban parks," it added.The U.S. government, whose National Park Service almost certainly would be affected by the court's decision, is supporting Chicago. It argues that the park-permit scheme contains enough safeguards to protect freedom of speech and, in any case, is not a prior restraint.The marijuana activists are supported by Public Citizen, which has warned about the case's potential impact on solicitation by charitable organizations. The Washington-based consumer advocacy group has a lawsuit pending in Florida challenging a Pinellas County ordinance that requires a permit for any solicitation by direct mail, telephone or door-to-door canvassing."In both the Chicago Park District and the Pinellas County cases, you have the risk of censorship if officials don't like the message," said Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, counsel for Public Citizen.Thomas and the Hemp Development Board have a similar case pending against the city of Chicago, which refused to let the marijuana activists parade through the Loop in conjunction with the planned rally.The appeals court backed the city as it had backed the Park District, and the board asked the Supreme Court to review that decision too.The disposition of the city case probably will be determined by the court's decision in the parks case, which is expected by the end of June.Note: Suit says Chicago permit process curbs free speech.Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)Author: Judy Peres and Glen Elsasser, Tribune Staff ReportersPublished December 3, 2001Copyright: 2001 Chicago Tribune CompanyContact: ctc-TribLetter Tribune.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Million Marijuana March - 1999 - 2001 To Consider Chicago Park Law Far Can Cities Go in Controlling Protests?
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