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NYCLU Challenges City on Sound Permits in Times Square

Like the steps of City Hall, Times Square has long been the site of political protest. Earlier this year, however, the City adopted a new policy by which it would issue sound permits (which are needed for most protest activity in that area) only to those groups who first obtained a special permit from the Mayor’s office that is issued for events for which streets need to be closed (such as street fairs). Not only do most protest groups have no need for such special permits, but they cannot obtain them because of the discriminatory nature of the rules for those permits.

According to press reports, the City adopted this policy as part of a strategy to silence the Black Israelites, a small group of black men who for years have used ampli-fied sound in Times Square to preach about controversial religious and political matters. Indeed, the Mayor’s chief of staff was quoted as stating, “the mayor decided that the people in that neighborhood don’t have to be subjected to that profane, vulgar, abusive language.”

The NYCLU first encountered problems with this policy when it applied for a sound permit for its annual anti-death-penalty rally that it holds each year on the first Sunday in June. The NYPD refused to issue the permit, and we then threatened to sue. At the last minute the City relented and issued us a sound permit.

In August, however, another group contacted us about their inability to obtain a sound permit. The International Action Center (IAC) is a grass-roots organization that was formed in 1992 to oppose U.S. military and economic intervention around the world and that has staged many protests in Times Square using amplified sound after being issued sound permits by the NYPD. On Friday, August 21, 1998, the IAC wanted to hold a demonstration protesting the prior days missile attacks on Afghanistan and the Sudan, but the NYPD refused to issue a permit. We threatened to sue, and the City agreed to issue a permit for that date.

Nonetheless, we filed suit in federal district court the following Monday (August 24) challenging the constitutionality of the policy and seeking a permit for another IAC event scheduled for October 1, 1998. The City has since agreed to issue IAC a sound permit for its October 1 event. And last week the City indicated that it would withdraw entirely its new policy and return to the general City-wide policy with respect to sound permits. No formal agreement has yet been drafted, however.

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