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Federal Court Declares Parks Department Scheme Charging Large Fees For Political Events To Be Unconstitutional

A federal appeals court in Manhattan has declared unconstitutional a scheme by which the New York City Parks Department was charging political groups large fees to have political events in City parks. In a case brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the cycling-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, the federal court late Friday afternoon rejected an appeal by New York City of a lower court ruling from August 2002. Friday’s ruling affects hundreds of events that take place in City parks every year, ranging from the AIDS Walk to small cultural celebrations.

Under the scheme declared unconstitutional, the Parks Department was charging “special event” permit fees to political groups seeking to hold a public event in a City park if the event involved any sponsorship by a for-profit entity or any fundraising. Fees ranged up to $100,000 per event and were in addition to regular fees charged for City services (such as clean-up) or for damage caused by the event. Transportation Alternatives had been charged over $17,000 for permits for bicycle-advocacy events it held in 1999, 2000, and 2001.

In finding the permit-fee scheme to be unconstitutional, the appeals court rejected the lower court’s finding that a political event becomes a commercial event if it has corporate sponsors. Had it not rejected this finding, which the City relied on in its appeal, many constitutionally protected activities (ranging from political events in public spaces to museums) would have lost important First Amendment protections.

NYCLU Associate Director Christopher Dunn hailed the decision: “The Parks Department fee scheme was little more than a tax on the First Amendment. While the City is free to charge for certain services needed for an event, it cannot impose large fees on political events simply because they enjoy corporate support or entail fundraising for political causes.”

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