Court Bans Peace March in Manhattan
New York, NY – Antiwar demonstrators may not march past the United Nations complex on Saturday, or anywhere else in Manhattan, a federal judge ruled yesterday. Agreeing with the city that a large, moving rally of 100,000 people or more raised serious security risks, the judge said the organizers would have to settle for a stationary rally five blocks north of the complex.
In refusing to grant a parade permit, the city did not violate the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights, the judge, Barbara S. Jones of Federal District Court in Manhattan, wrote in her opinion rejecting their request for a preliminary injunction. She said that their free-speech rights were adequately protected by the city’s counteroffer of a rally for 10,000 people at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, at 47th Street, with overflow space as far north on First Avenue as needed.
Judge Jones said that the city had offered compelling reasons for not being able to guarantee the safety of marchers — or of the United Nations complex, where all demonstrations and parades have been banned since the terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center. The judge noted that the city had presented evidence about two incidents: a failed plot to bomb New York landmarks, including the United Nations, and the case of a gunman who scaled the front fence at the United Nations in October and fired pistol shots through upper windows to protest human rights violations in North Korea.
Organizers of the umbrella group organizing the protest, United for Peace and Justice, began negotiating with the Police Department about three weeks ago. They called the judge’s decision an assault on their constitutional right to express opposition to a possible war with Iraq. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed an immediate appeal yesterday with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
“We know we have a right to march so we will continue to fight for that right,” said Leslie Cagan, 55, a co-chairwoman of United for Peace and Justice.
Ms. Cagan said the group had specifically requested a march because it was more meaningful than a rally. Noting that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had recently made a case for war to the United Nations, she said she wanted marchers to pass by the complex because it “is also a symbol for the possibility of international cooperation, and that’s what we want to be promoting.”
But Judge Jones gave great weight in her opinion to testimony from Michael D. Esposito, an assistant police chief. He said that Ms. Cagan had not been able to give him a firm estimate of how many people would be attending the march, so he feared the department could not provide sufficient security. He said a stationary rally, in contrast, could be adequately policed, even if crowds of 100,000 or more gathered.
Judge Jones said that she was not willing to “second-guess” the chief’s judgment, saying that “the court credits the city’s assessment that the N.Y.P.D. could not responsibly plan security for a march of this magnitude with only the limited amount of information that the organizers have offered the N.Y.P.D. at this late point in the planning process.”
Jeffrey D. Friedlander, the city’s assistant corporation counsel, said he was gratified by Judge Jones’s decision. “We will continue to work with the organizers so their voices can be heard consistent with the First Amendment and the interests and safety of the city,” he said.
The city’s counteroffer included the rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, 47th Street and First Avenue, which is within view of the United Nations. An overflow crowd of any size could be accommodated in pens on First Avenue, the police said.
Ms. Cagan said of that location: “If you’re at all toward the back you can’t see the U.N. We’re trying to show a unified statement against this war. The proposal breaks us up.”
The Police Department’s contention that it could not maintain safety at a traditional, peaceful protest march was rejected yesterday by a number of First Amendment experts who found the court’s decision a bad precedent.
Victor A. Kovner, a leading First Amendment lawyer and a former corporation counsel under Mayor David N. Dinkins, said it marked a “low moment in New York’s history.”
“Large marches are being held in cities throughout the nation and the world,” Mr. Kovner said, “and it is incomprehensible that the finest police department in the world cannot accommodate a traditional peaceful protest. Given the wealth of precedents for peaceful marches, it is a highly disturbing precedent.”
Ms. Cagan and others who support the effort to march said the city’s denial of a parade permit had nothing to do with safety. At a news conference yesterday, City Councilman Bill Perkins said: “This is meant to send a message beyond New York City and it is going to have a chilling effect nationally. I think the Bush administration does not like political dissent and has influenced the Bloomberg administration to stop it.”
Ms. Cagan said that the presence of two federal prosecutors at the hearing last week was a testament to that. The prosecutors, David Jones and Andrew O’Toole, assistant United States attorneys based in Manhattan, appeared before Judge Jones to voice the government’s concerns about its treaty obligations to ensure access and safety at the United Nations.
“We had no idea that they were going to weigh in on this,” Ms. Cagan said. “We think this is part of something unfolding nationally, a serious curtailing of civil liberties throughout this country.”
Ms. Cagan and Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted that the city allowed cultural parades that attract just as many people as the protest march might. They cited the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which usually draws around 100,000 spectators.
But Judge Jones found that these annual events involved months of planning, and that the police had substantial experience securing them.
Chief Esposito said that Ms. Cagan’s proposed march lacked a carefully planned and paced sequence, which would make it difficult to control crowd surges or other emergencies.