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Village Cannot Impose Prohibitive Insurance Requirement As Condition Of Free Speech, NYCLU Warns

The New York Civil Liberties Union today urged the Village of Bellport to drop an arbitrary and unconstitutional requirement that a group wishing to march on the street must purchase $2 million in insurance and indemnify the Village from liability as a condition of receiving a permit.

The NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter petitioned the Village in the form of a letter on behalf of the Suffolk County Peace Group, which has for each of the past 23 years organized an peaceful procession and vigil to commemorate the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and to condemn the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In previous years the Village has always granted the Peace Group a permit for the procession, which has consisted of a walk through the streets and has always been peaceful and without incident. But as the group’s coordinators prepared for this year’s event, which took place August 6, the Village informed the group that it would be denied a permit to march unless it secured $2 million of liability insurance coverage and signed an indemnification agreement holding the Village of Bellport harmless from any liability.

“A group’s right to free speech should not be contingent upon its ability to pay extraordinary insurance fees,” said Dolores Bilges, Executive Director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the NYCLU.

Because the the group was unable to secure such insurance coverage, it was forced to march without a permit or police escort on the pathways alongside the road. Marching along the side of the roadway is inadequate because the path’s unevenness and narrowness makes the route hazardous and because its removal from the road reduces the prominence and visibility of the procession, the group said. The group seeks assurance that in coming years it will be able to secure a parade permit, which would allow it to march on the roadway again.

“The South County Peace Group’s annual procession and vigil is a classic form of ideological expression,” said Stan Gewanter, President of the Suffolk County Chapter of the NYCLU. “Such expression is entitled to plenary protection under the First Amendment. The imposition of the insurance requirement on a group wishing to carry out such expression is a substantial and unconstitutional burden upon the group’s right to free speech. If we cannot resolve this matter, we will have no alternative but to take the Village to court.”

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