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ACLU sues Denver and Secret Service to protect First Amendment rights during 2008 Democratic National Convention

The ACLU of Colorado announced today that it had filed suit  in federal court on behalf of 12 advocacy organizations against the United States Secret Service and the City and County of Denver, seeking to protect the right to engage in peaceful marches, demonstrations, and assemblies during the Democratic National Convention in Denver this coming August. 

“On behalf of clients representing a dozen national and Colorado organizations, the ACLU has filed suit to ensure that law enforcement’s concerns about security are not allowed to override or undermine the First Amendment right of the people to assemble peacefully and express their views on the important public issues of the day,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director.  “We are asking the federal district court in Denver to take immediate steps to ensure that what happened in Boston in 2004 will not be repeated in Denver this summer.”

At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, law enforcement authorities set up a much-criticized “demonstration zone” outside the heavily secured perimeter of the convention site.  Ruling in a case filed only two weeks before the convention, a federal court described the zone–enclosed by concrete barricades, multiple layers of fencing, mesh, and netting, topped with overhead razor wire and located under an old rail line–as a “grim, mean, and oppressive space” comparable to “an internment camp,” and “an offense to the spirit of the First Amendment.”

“In Boston, the trial court and the court of appeals said there was not enough time for full evaluation and not enough time to carry out any orders the courts might issue regarding the barriers and physical limitations of the demonstration zone, and therefore no time to remedy First Amendment violations,” Silverstein said.  “The courts said that in future cases, arguments that security arrangements infringe on First Amendment rights should be brought to court much earlier, to give the courts and the parties adequate time to analyze the challenged plans and the possible alternatives, and order changes if necessary.  For that reason, we are filing now and asking the court to place this case on a top-priority schedule.”

“Denver has refused to process any applications for parade permits during the DNC, and it has refused to disclose any information about the ‘demonstration zone’ that it plans to set up, ” explained Steven D. Zansberg, an ACLU cooperating attorney who, along with partner Christopher P. Beall at Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz, led the team filing the lawsuit today.  “Denver says it is waiting for the Secret Service to decide the outer boundaries of the security perimeter, and the Secret Service says it may not decide until July.  If the plaintiffs are forced to wait for these government agencies to act, there will be not be enough time for a court to review unreasonable restrictions on First Amendment activity.”

The court papers filed today refer to two stages of the lawsuit.  In the first stage, the plaintiffs are asking the Court to order the Secret Service immediately to provide Denver whatever information the City believes it needs to process applications for parade permits, to determine parade routes, and to finalize and disclose plans for the anticipated demonstration zone.  In the second phase, after Denver discloses the plans and its anticipated regulations of First Amendment activity, the Court will be asked to review those restrictions and to prohibit or modify those that unjustifiably infringe on First Amendment rights.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the ACLU, American Friends Service Committee, American Indian Movement of Colorado, Americans for Safe Access, CODEPINK, Escuela Tlatelolco, Troops Out Now Coalition, Recreate 68, Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Citizens for Obama, Tent State University, and United for Peace and Justice.  Both ACLU and Recreate 68 have been meeting and corresponding with City officials for a year, in an unsuccessful effort to iron out the City’s plans for marches and for demonstrations near the Convention site.

Several of the plaintiffs, including Recreate 68, Escuela Tlatelolco, and Troops Out Now, have filed timely requests for parade permits, but Denver will not process them and refuses to say when it will begin processing them.  Plaintiff Citizens for Obama, created by Damian Sedney, a Vermont resident, has asked for permits for several marches in support of Senator Obama’s nomination.  According to the lawsuit, Sedney has prepared a website to advertise the planned marches, but he is holding off until he knows whether or not he will obtain the necessary permit.  Every day that goes by without action, the lawsuit asserts, reduces the ability of Sedney and other plaintiffs to recruit supporters and participants to come to Denver and join in their constitutionally protected activities.

Defendants named in the lawsuit are the United States Secret Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the City and County of Denver.  Additional defendants are Michael Battista, Deputy Chief of Operations for the Denver Police Department, and Mark Sullivan, Director of the Secret Service.  Pursuant to federal law, the Secret Service oversees security at major events, like national political conventions, that have been declared to be “National Special Security Events.”

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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