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Federal Court Invalidates Parks Department Rules Imposing Large Fees On Political Events In City Parks

In a suit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin today declared unconstitutional the City regulations by which the New York City Parks Department has been imposing large permit fees on groups holding political events in City parks. Judge Scheindlin barred the City from further enforcing the regulations and ordered the City to refund the $17,500 in fees paid by Transportation Alternatives for advocacy events it held in Central Park the last three years.

For many years, Transportation Alternatives has sponsored a city-wide bike ride to support its advocacy work, and a part of that event took place at the northern end of Central Park. Like many advocacy groups who hold such events in City parks, the Transportation Alternatives event has been sponsored by various for-profit groups that provide financial and other support for the event. Under the April 2001 regulations challenged by the NYCLU, the Parks Department has been charging fees of up to $100,000 for groups to hold such events simply because they are sponsored by for-profit entities.

Beyond invalidating the regulations adopted in April 2001, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the Parks Department’s prior fee-setting practices also were unconstitutional. Under those practices, the Parks Department charged higher fees for events that were not “consistent with the images of Parks” and thus events “focusing on trees would be charged lower fees than those focusing on the death penalty.” Judge Scheindlin found this scheme to be “anathema to the First Amendment.”

NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn hailed today’s decision: “The First Amendment does not allow the City to impose huge fees on political events in City parks simply because they are supported by corporate sponsors. The City of course is free to regulate advertising in parks, but such limits must not be targeted at advocacy.”

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