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ACLU seeks changes to Denver’s proposed permit laws being revised in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention

Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass, 303-777-5482 x104; 303-817-9502
Executive Director Cathryn Hazouri, 303-777-5482 x116; 303-257-7455

The ACLU Foundation of Colorado today sent a letter to Denver city officials detailing “serious constitutional problems” with the City’s proposed laws for parade and park permits. Although the laws are being revised by Denver in anticipation of the 2008 DNC, the proposed changes would affect all Denver permit requests from the moment they are adopted by City Council, up through the DNC, and beyond.

In particular, the letter highlights concerns with Denver’s proposal to grant the government blanket priority over private citizens’ free speech. Under the proposed ordinance, when there are competing applications for Denver’s sidewalks, streets or parks, the government would automatically be granted the permit. The ACLU criticized the proposal as permitting a “de facto government monopoly” on Denver’s historic public spaces, especially during major events like the DNC during which Denver and other federal, state or local government entities could lock up all of Denver’s most central and visible parade routes and parks by simply holding or co-sponsoring favored events.

“Under the provision as drafted, an event that is ‘presented’ by any government or its ‘agents’ gets priority to use Denver’s public parks, streets and sidewalks,” explained ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass. “A system that universally grants so-called government events preferential treatment over the free speech of private citizens is both unwise and unconstitutional.”

“Under this proposed law, if a government entity like the North Dakota Milk Marketing Board and a private group of Denver WWII Veterans both file applications to parade down Colfax on Veteran’s Day, the Milk Marketing Board would automatically get the permit and the Veterans would be told to march somewhere else,” said Pendergrass. “At the DNC, Denver or any other federal, state or local government can simply co-sponsor any event it favors, monopolizing Denver’s public parks and streets for government-approved activities. We don’t believe that is what the constitution allows, nor frankly is it what we expected from city officials who have repeatedly pledged to respect free speech rights.”

The ACLU also says proposals that would require permits for the free speech of “one or more persons” are unconstitutional. The ACLU letter claims the permit requirement “is broad enough to include one person walking through or sitting in a park with a sign that states ‘Repent Now! The End is Near’ or ‘Impeach the Mayor.’ Indeed, it is so broad as to include a person walking through or sitting in a park wearing a T-shirt containing such a message.”

The letter also encourages the city to waive provisions levying fees on free speech parades, and urges the city to drop or revise provisions that would require permit applications to be submitted a month and a half in advance. The ACLU also demanded the laws be amended in a number of places to include detailed guidance for city officials who will be deciding whether to grant permit applications, in order to prevent them from denying permits based on the content of the speech. The ACLU says the laws as drafted contain few concrete standards and therefore give city officials “unbridled discretion” when considering permit applications. The Supreme Court has long held that vague and subjective permitting standards violate the First Amendment.

“Denver has made some important changes and we are encouraged by their willingness to consider our comments, but we still have a long way to go,” said Cathryn Hazouri, the ACLU of Colorado’s Executive Director. “Fortunately, that is what this process is all about. City officials still have time to demonstrate that their stated commitment to free speech rights is more than just lip service. They can do so by making changes to these laws and avoiding the black eye that cities like Boston received during the 2004 DNC.”

City officials have told the ACLU of Colorado they will review the ACLU’s comments on the proposed changes before submitting the final version of the changes to Denver’s City Council. “Whenever the City Council meets to consider the changes, we’ll be there,” said Hazouri. “We hope to be talking to the City Council more about what is right with the ordinance, rather than the other way around.”

The letter was sent on behalf of the ACLU of Colorado and attorneys from some of Denver’s top law firms including Dorsey & Whitney, Holland & Hart, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti, and Recht & Kornfeld, who have signed on as ACLU of Colorado cooperating attorneys for the purpose of protecting constitutional rights at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Read the full letter sent to Denver by the ACLU of Colorado. 

   * ACLU Comments on Denver's Proposed Permit Ordinance

About the ACLU of Colorado
The ACLU is a nationwide, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the principles of the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy and public education.  The ACLU Foundation of Colorado works to protect the rights of all Coloradans.

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