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Op-Ed: Respecting The First Amendment Rights Of Demonstrators At The World Economic Forum

By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman

Note: an edited version of this article was published in the February 1, 2002 issue of Newsday.

The World Economic Forum taking place at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan has brought to New York City corporate and political leaders from around the world. It also promises to draw tens of thousands of protesters, with the largest events scheduled to take place tomorrow. Unfortunately, the prospect of violence by a few people has cast a broad pall over the lawful protests planned by thousands and threatens efforts by the Bloomberg Administration to step away from the Giuliani Administration’s trademark hostility towards controversial protest activity.

Recent events like the World Economic Forum that have been held in other cities — such as Seattle and Washington, D.C. — have been marred by incidents of lawlessness and property damage. And, despite the hope that in light of the World Trade Center attack New York City will be spared confrontation, the New York City Police Department is bracing itself for the possibility that some individuals and groups may be coming to the City with the intent of destroying property and creating disorder.

The possibility of unlawful activity cannot, however, be allowed to obscure the fact that the vast majority of the protesters converging on New York City are coming here to engage in one of our most cherished traditions: peaceful, public protest. For every person who may attempt to deface or destroy property, there will be thousands of people peacefully marching on public streets, holding protest signs, leafletting on public sidewalks, and gathering outside the Waldorf-Astoria.

Nonetheless, statements by NYPD officials this week suggest that the Department may use the prospect of lawlessness by the few to crack down on the many peaceful demonstrators. For instance, the Department’s announcement that it will single out demonstrators for a “zero tolerance” approach for even the most minor of offenses — such as jaywalking and littering — suggests that the Department has adopted a double-standard of law enforcement that targets protesters and makes them more vulnerable to arrest by virtue of their First Amendment activity. It also indicates that the Department may be more interested in arresting people than in respecting their constitutional rights. This approach unfortunately harkens back to the one taken by the Giuliani Administration.

For instance, just minutes after the scheduled ending of the September 1998 Million Youth March, which up to that point had been entirely peaceful, the NYPD forcibly shut off the amplified sound for the event, NYPD officers stormed the stage, and an NYPD helicopter swooped down on the crowd, all of which resulted in havoc that was wholly unnecessary. Earlier that year the City had blockaded all the East River bridge and tunnel crossings to prevent cab drivers from conducting a lawful vehicular procession from Queens to the Manhattan headquarters of the Taxi Limousine Commission to protest changes to TLC rules being pushed by Mayor Giuliani. And in December 1998 the City was treated to the sight of NYPD sharpshooters perched along the roof of City Hall while several hundred AIDS advocates peacefully rallied near the steps of City Hall to protest the Administration’s neglect of those with HIV and AIDS.

Until last week, the Police Department under newly elected Mayor Bloomberg seemed to be taking a fundamentally different approach to the controversial protests scheduled to take place at the World Economic Forum. Unlike police departments in other cities, the NYPD had not created large, fenced no-demonstration zones; it was granting permits for rallies and other activities; and high-level officials seemed to be taking a balanced approach towards the handling of demonstrators who might be caught in the middle of people seeking to break the law.

Since then, however, the Department’s tone has been decidedly more confrontational. Invoking the threat of violence, police officials have declared a “zero tolerance” approach to demonstrators committing minor offenses like littering and jaywalking and have stated that they will not even warn protesters of violations of rules about which they might not even know (such as the anti-mask law) before arresting them. Beyond these particulars, the Department’s emphatic message to those who will be coming to exercise their fundamental right to peaceful protest — not just to people coming to commit unlawful acts — is that they will be on the streets of New York this week at their peril.

This message is wrong and contrary to our City’s historical commitment — the last eight years being a notable exception — to respecting the values of the First Amendment. While all New Yorkers should support the Police Department’s efforts to avert violence and to arrest those who commit it, we must also demand the Department and the City be firmly committed to respecting and protecting the rights of people who wish to engage in peaceful, public protest.

Dunn is a Senior Staff Attorney at the NYCLU; Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director.

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