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GLAA supports Patterson Demonstration bill and ACLU-endorsed amendments
GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
Monday, November 15, 2004
The Honorable Kathy Patterson
Chair, Committee on the Judiciary
Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
Dear Councilmember Patterson:
We are writing today to endorse Bill 15-968, the "First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004," and to commend the recommendations of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area (ACLU/NCA). As defenders of civil liberties in the District for over three decades, we are grateful to you and your staff for drafting it, to your co-sponsors for supporting it, and to our friends in ACLU/NCA for reviewing it so carefully and making good suggestions for improving it.
In particular, we commend the amendments supported by ACLU/NCA that would:
- Prohibit illicit surveillance and investigation of individuals and groups engaged in protected First Amendment activity.
- Make clear that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) does not have authority to grant or withhold permission for a First Amendment assembly but only to obtain information needed to facilitate such assemblies, and make explicit that demonstrating without a permit is not per se unlawful.
- Create real time limits for the First Amendment Notice and Plan Process.
- Limit the use of riot gear and tactics, which can have a chilling effect on free speech by law-abiding citizens and even escalate a hostile atmosphere when used where there is no realistic expectation of violence.
- Make it clear that persons injured by violations of the Act have a private right of action to seek redress.
- Restrict the use of restraints to prevent their punitive use such as was done in the Pershing Park incident with wrist-ankle restraints.
We also agree with ACLU/NCA that you should not delete the bill's statement that "persons and groups have a right to organize and participate in peaceful First Amendment assemblies [in] the District of Columbia, and to engage in First Amendment assembly near the object of their protest so they may be seen and heard, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to protect public safety and accommodate the interest of [others]." As ACLU/NCA has noted, police here and elsewhere have too often violated the spirit of the First Amendment in recent years by confining peaceful demonstrators to "free speech zones" far away from the object of their protest. You should therefore resist the suggestion by the Office of Attorney General to delete the above policy statement.
We were as troubled as you in September 2002 when four hundred peaceful protesters and bystanders in Pershing Park were arrested by MPD officers without warning or just cause. But perhaps more disturbing than the incident itself was the long refusal by the MPD and the Williams Administration to acknowledge wrongdoing. MPD Chief Charles Ramsey, with whom we are happy to have worked closely and cooperated on many matters, repeatedly said that the police had nothing to apologize for, and was initially praised by Mayor Williams for his handling of the arrests. Only a year later, after the report of the internal police investigation was ordered released by a federal judge, did the Mayor admit that there were "lessons to be learned," and did the Chief acknowledge, "There are some things at Pershing Park that we could have done better."
Those events demonstrate not only the value of the courts, but the difficulty of getting even well-intentioned public servants to police themselves. Your bill, with ACLU/NCA's recommended changes, will help force our police to follow procedures that respect First Amendment freedoms without compromising public safety.
Thank you for your attention to this and for your continued defense of our civil liberties. We urge the rest of your colleagues, whom we are copying on this letter, to join you and your co-sponsors in supporting Bill 15-968.
Richard J. Rosendall
Vice President for Political Affairs
cc: All D.C. Councilmembers
American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area