The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is suing the city of Cleveland, alleging that city officials have implemented overly-restrictive regulations in anticipation for the Republican National Convention, citing free speech and First Amendment violations.
To be held in downtown Cleveland July 18-2, the RNC is expected to draw 2,472 delegates, major campaign contributors, lobbyists, and 15,000 credentialed members of the media.
While perfectly positioned in the swing state of Ohio, Cleveland is now facing challenges balancing the rights of demonstrators with the safety of other convention attendees and local residents.
In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, the ACLU cited a threefold issue that the city of Cleveland needs to address in order to avoid First Amendment violations.
First and foremost, they are asking the city to “immediately revise” and reduce the breadth where regulations and restrictions are enforced. Currently the scope of restrictions covers 3.3 miles of the downtown area, designated as the “Event Zone.” Both convention-goers and local passersby alike traveling through this area will be subject to broad restrictions on their conduct and objects in their possession, even prohibiting everyday items like string, rope, tape, coolers, large backpacks, and tents. These regulations may also interfere with the rights and liberties of homeless people who typically possess such items and inhabit downtown Cleveland.
“Limitations apply far beyond the part of the city where the Convention activities will take place,” encompassing areas and “neighborhoods where people live, sleep and conduct their daily activities,” the lawsuit says.
To give some perspective, the designated “Event Zone” during the 2012 RNC held in Charlotte — another mid-size city comparable to Cleveland — covered about 1.5 miles.
“The ACLU reviewed the last ten years of conventions, and there is almost always litigation, however in this case, Cleveland has taken it to the extreme,” says Christine Link, Executive Director of ACLU Ohio.
“After a year of negotiating with the city, they finally responded with an 8 page letter saying basically that they won’t budge,” says Link, “so we had to take it to the courts and have even offered the court and the city several sample maps of a re-drawn ‘Event Zone’ that would leave out the residential area.”
In conjunction with this issue are the more pressing problems of permits and parade routes.
According to the ACLU of Ohio, there is currently backlog and delay in processing permits needed for public gatherings and parades. Delays in permit-processing “are already having a chilling effect on speech. The city is withholding information that organizers need to finalize plans so people can come out and be heard as the national spotlight focuses on Cleveland,” said Link.
Not only this, but the lawsuit also claims that “the city will not issue any permits for any kind of public gathering or parade in the Event Zone throughout the Convention period, except for one designated parade route that lies along the southern border of the Zone.”
“What the city is doing is pro-actively saying ‘we are limiting the right to speech because of what MIGHT happen.’ So just because it MIGHT happen, we have to give up our rights to free speech – we at the ACLU do not give up rights so easily, that is what we are here,” says Link.
The parade route may prohibit free speech because it is restricted to the very edge of the Event Zone. Jurisprudence affords any marchers, protesters or demonstrators the right to be within the ‘sight and sound’ of the people they are trying to reach with protests. With the parade pushed towards the outskirts of the Zone, it is unlikely that the ‘sight and sound’ requirement — “which has required in previous cases protecting protester rights” — will be fulfilled. There are also a very limited number of hours in which parading is permitted to occur.
Reducing the sphere of influence of restrictions would help to promote more free speech spaces where both sides are free to express their views.
By reducing parade influence and “by effectively denying permits through attrition, Cleveland is removing the people from an event which is supposed to be a celebration of democracy,” says Link.
Emily Lauer, Senior Director of PR and Communications for Destination Cleveland and media coordinator for the Cleveland Host Committee, says, “We respect everyone First Amendment Rights and also understand the perspective of the city of Cleveland to try to accommodate that. The decision relative to the parade routes and expression of First Amendment rights is the decision of Cleveland and they alone make that decision. It is now up to the courts, we are remaining neutral and are not a part of those conversations between the two organizations – we hope that a solution is reached that is amicable to both parties.”
Reached by The Daily Caller on Wednesday afternoon, the Office of the Mayor of Cleveland declined to comment.
The Republican National Committee could not be reached for comment.