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Op-Ed: License to Stroll (New York Times)

By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — An initiative by the New York Police Department to expand its control over the city’s street life is scheduled for a public hearing on Aug. 23. Many groups are rightly upset because the proposal needlessly seeks to require police permits for a wide range of public events and protests that have never needed police permission.

But the proposal does provide a welcome opportunity to reassess the department’s permit authority. And if anything, the city should reduce, not increase, that authority.

Under current law, police permits are required in only narrow circumstances: when a group seeks to march in a public roadway, or when amplified sound is to be used on a public sidewalk or in a public park. Police permission is not needed when groups assemble on sidewalks for pickets, rallies or other events; move together (in marches or just as groups) along sidewalks; or conduct vehicle or bicycle processions in public streets when complying with traffic laws.

The Police Department’s proposal would require police permits for every sidewalk procession involving 35 or more people, every roadway procession with 20 or more vehicles or bicycles, and every procession of two or more people using a roadway “in a manner that does not comply with all applicable traffic laws, rules and regulations.”

Thus, not only would police permits be required for the many occasions where groups hold small — and often spontaneous — sidewalk marches, but also for a wide range of daily activities, like walking tours, school outings, funeral processions and weekend bike rides. Indeed, as silly as it may seem, a couple jaywalking or a family riding bicycles without stopping at every red light would be subject to arrest for parading without a permit.

Obtaining a Police Department parade permit is no small task. The very prospect of having to deal with the police scares off some people, and just filing an application can be difficult. Then the group must appear at a police station to answer questions about speakers, topics and likely participants and to negotiate myriad details, including publicity and the precise route, start and end times.

As groups attempt to navigate this process and wait for department approval, they are hampered in organizing their events because they don’t know whether they can take place at all or as they planned them.

This all creates considerable obstacles for free speech. Over the last decade our organization, the New York Civil Liberties Union, has represented scores of groups seeking police permits.

We have seen firsthand how wary organizers are of having to open their events to police scrutiny and how often they have been forced to change important aspects of their events to comply with police demands. Moreover, even with legal representation, organizers often feel that the police, who have virtually complete control over the event, are intimidating and even abusive.

Given this situation, the last thing New Yorkers need is for police permits to be required for more events. Indeed, it probably is the last thing the Police Department needs. Surely, with all the other demands on the department now, police officials have better things to do than sit in endless meetings hammering out the details of walking tours, field trips and bike rides. The department’s proposal is bad policy that would extend police control to events that raise no meaningful law enforcement concerns.

Instead, the city should consider reducing the Police Department’s role in the permit process. In truth, the challenges presented by nearly all demonstrations and other public events are logistical ones, not law enforcement ones. Public events, particularly large ones, do require traffic and crowd management, but these issues do not require a police-controlled permit process.

The solution is for Mayor Michael Bloomberg or the City Council to reject the current proposal and to move permit responsibility out of the Police Department. A civilian unit in the mayor’s office, the Community Assistance Unit, already handles permits and planning for street fairs and block parties, and it could take over handling public events that now require police permits.

While the police would of course remain involved to address public-safety issues, getting them out of the event planning business would be good for the First Amendment, good for the New York Police Department and good for the freedom that long has been a hallmark of street life in this city.

Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman are, respectively, associate legal director and executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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