Rights Groups Urge City to Halt Illegal Restrictions at Zuccotti Park

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January 9, 2012 —  Arbitrary and inconsistently applied rules and security measures restricting the public’s access to Zuccotti Park violate city zoning laws, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild argued today in a letter to the New York City Department of Buildings.

The groups urge Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri to promptly address the violations and ensure that Zuccotti Park is open and accessible to all members of the public on an equal basis.

“Right now, Zuccotti Park is a public space in name only,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The metal barricades, security checkpoints and selectively enforced rules not only raise serious constitutional concerns, they violate city zoning laws. We expect the city to ensure that the park is managed in a manner consistent with its own laws.”

Metal barricades have encircled Zuccotti Park since the NYPD cleared the Occupy Wall Street encampment there on Nov. 16. The public can only enter the park through two gaps where security personnel selectively subject people to searches.

The groups maintain that these security measures and the constantly changing, selectively enforced and unwritten park rules violate zoning laws, longstanding city policies, and park-owner Brookfield Properties’ legal obligations under a 1968 special zoning permit that established the park as a “permanently open park” for “the public benefit.”

In its letter, the groups present a list of these violations. Among them:

  • The metal barricades encircling the park violate a city voting law requiring at least 50 percent of the plaza’s frontage be unobstructed with unrestricted access to all walkways through the park.
  • The barricades and checkpoints interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of the park, in violation of Brookfield’s legal obligation to maintain the space as a “permanent open park.” People are reluctant to enter an area encircled by metal police barricades.
  • The barricades constitute a major design modification to the park. Under zoning law, such modifications must go through a city approval process, which has not occurred.
  • Security personnel have prohibited individuals from bringing an ever-changing list of items into the park, including food, cardboard signs, musical instruments and yoga mats even though the park’s written rules do not prohibit any particular items from entering the park. The written rules only apply to prohibited conduct.

“In a statement issued by Mayor Bloomberg explaining his decision to evict peaceful protesters from Zuccotti Park, the mayor noted that ‘we must never be afraid to insist on compliance with our laws,’” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass. “That is precisely what we are asking the City to do now—comply with its own laws and restore the park to its role as a functioning public space open to all New Yorkers.”

“First Amendment freedoms are particularly vulnerable to selective enforcement by the government,” said Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Like the constitution, City zoning law also recognizes that in New York City's public plazas, members of the public cannot be selectively targeted for the enforcement of patently unreasonable restrictions.”

“Brookfield and the City must remove these restrictions and restore Liberty Park to the people immediately,” said Gideon Orion Oliver, president of the National Lawyers Guild – New York City Chapter. “Every day they refuse to do so, they compound the irreparable harm they have done – and continue to do – to our First Amendment freedoms.”

In addition to the complaint filed today, others have made similar complaints to the Department of Buildings. The Department of Buildings’ online complaint website shows an open complaint regarding the barricades at Zuccotti Park, and the group “whOWNSspace” states that nearly 100 additional complaints have been filed by other individuals asking the Department of Buildings to investigate the ongoing zoning law violations at the park.