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Alderman Moore’s Statement on the Proposed Parade and Public Assembly Ordinance

Posted on January 19, 2012

Remarks of Alderman Joe Moore
Regarding the Parade and Public Assembly Ordinance
January 17, 2012

The right to protest and petition our government for a redress of grievances is the foundation of our democracy and our most cherished freedom. I can think of no neighborhood in our nation where that freedom is more treasured, and practiced more frequently, than the 49th Ward of Chicago. That is why the proposal to increase the fines for resisting arrest and the proposed changes to the City of Chicago’s parade and public assembly ordinances are of such concern to me and many of my 49th Ward constituents.

Over the years, I have participated in dozens upon dozens of protest demonstrations and picket lines. I was an outspoken critic of the previous mayor and his administration when Chicago police in March, 2003, detained and arrested over 500 anti-war protestors in clear violation of their civil rights.

When the previous Chairman of the City Council Police and Fire Committee refused my request to hold hearings on those illegal arrests, I held my own hearings in the City Council chambers that helped shine a public spotlight on the City’s abuse of authority. I take a back seat to no one in defending the first amendment.

However, no rights are absolute, not even our first amendment rights. Courts have long held that the rights of free expression and protest are subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. The challenge for us as lawmakers is to strike the balance that allows for the expression of our cherished first amendment freedoms while safeguarding other important public interests.

Unfortunately, the debate over the Mayor’s proposals too often has been marked by overheated rhetoric and over-the-top hyperbole. The proposals have been portrayed inaccurately as a series of draconian measures designed to undercut the very fabric of our first amendment freedoms.

These misrepresentations are not helpful to the debate. Though the first amendment protects the right to say just about anything, thoughtful policymaking results from debate that is reasoned and based on fact, not innuendo and character assassination.

Though I disagreed with some of the Mayor’s initial proposals, they were nevertheless limited in scope and far from the wholesale trampling of first amendment freedoms that some of their opponents have portrayed.

Before I discuss the Parade and Public Assembly Ordinance as it is currently proposed, allow me to summarize briefly what it is not, by challenging directly the assertions of some of its opponents.

The Ordinance does not “criminalize the act of expressing dissent.” The right to protest on the public way, whether it is a street, sidewalk or public square, is still very much protected.

The Ordinance does not “add extensive rules and restrictions that hyper-bureaucratize the process of obtaining a permit.” In fact, the legislation we will vote on today adds only four very modest requirements to an application for a parade permit.

The proposals do not require protestors to “obtain City approval” to use recording equipment, sound amplification equipment, banners, signs or any other attention-getting devices. Demonstrators are free to carry any sign and use any sound or recording equipment they wish at any public protest.

The proposals do not “limit public assemblies to sidewalks only.” Public assemblies are still allowed on streets and parks and public squares subject to reasonable restrictions on their time place and manner.

The proposals do not require anyone to “obtain a permit to protest on a sidewalk.” People are free to engage in any first amendment activity on a public sidewalk without prior approval, unless that activity impedes pedestrians or flows out into the street.

When all is said and done, we will be voting today to clarify and reorganize a confusing, forty-year-old parade and public assembly ordinance. The organization and layout of the ordinance has changed, but the substance regarding the exercise of first amendment rights remains largely the same. There are a few additions, however.

Lost in all the hyperbole is the fact that a number of the Mayor’s proposals actually expand first amendment protections. Though the application fee for a parade permit increases to $50 from $35, the ordinance for the first time provides a waiver of the fee and insurance requirements if the parade organizers are unable to pay.

It provides a procedure for allowing public assemblies to morph into un-permitted parades and to use the public way. And when a permit application is denied, and time is of the essence, it allows for the applicant to bypass the administrative appeals process and go directly to circuit court to appeal their denial.

Contrary to the allegations of some that the new Ordinance contains a series of draconian measures, the new parade ordinance imposes only three very modest additional regulations on the exercise of first amendment rights:

1) The volume of amplified sound will be restricted between the hours of 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. Under the proposal, the use of an amplified device is still allowed during those hours, but it would be prohibited at a sound level “clearly audible to a person with normal hearing at a distance greater than 75 feet.” Though people have a right to assemble and demonstrate, people also have a right to peace and quiet after 10:00 at night. Under the proposed ordinance, you still will have a right to demonstrate after 10:00 at night, you just won’t be able to disturb your neighbors by using a sound system that can be heard by a person who’s more than 75 feet away.

2) The minimum fine for a violation of the parade ordinance will increase from $50 to $200. Initially, the proposed ordinance also called for increasing the maximum fine from $1,000 to $2,000, but the Mayor later agreed to keep the maximum fine at $1,000.

3) When submitting a permit application for a parade, the parade organizer must provide some additional information—an e-mail address, evidence that the person applying on behalf of the organization is authorized to do so, and proof that the owner of the property from which the parade will assemble or disband has authorized the use of his or her property.

Finally, the parade application must contain a general description of any sound amplification equipment that is on wheels or too large for one person to carry and/or any signs or banners that are too large for one person to carry. The purpose of this provision is to help the police determine how many lanes of traffic to shut down during a march. Initially, the proposed ordinance called for a description of all sound equipment, recording equipment, signs and banners that were to be carried in the parade, but that overly burdensome requirement was changed at the urging of several of us in the Council to focus solely on those large items that could impede traffic and pedestrian flow.

A good leader recognizes that he or she does not have a corner on all wisdom. A good leader is open to suggestions and advice from others. Mayor Emanuel listened to the concerns of community activists and City Council members about some of his initial proposals and made several significant modifications. In addition to changes I just spoke of, the Mayor and his team dropped the proposed “parade marshal” requirement for every 100 demonstrators and did not reduce the time limit for parades, as he had originally proposed.

Though they are not part of the Parade and Public Assembly ordinance, the fines for resisting arrest can certainly implicate first amendment rights. I applaud the Mayor for agreeing to leave the fines for resisting arrest at their current level of a minimum of $25 and a maximum of $500. Though the fines for resisting arrest have not increased in over 40 years, and the proposed increases were below the rate of inflation, many of us were concerned about the chilling effect on the exercise of first amendment expression that the fine increases might impose, especially in light of the upcoming G8 and NATO Summits.

I congratulate Mayor Emanuel, our Corporation Counsel, Steve Patton, and the other members of the Mayor’s team for their open-mindedness and lack of defensiveness about their proposals. It’s truly a refreshing change in City Hall.

Tragically, our city government in past years has not always respected first amendment rights, especially the right to protest and petition government for the redress of grievances. The City’s history is replete with examples of abuse of government authority, be it the police riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the formation of the Red Squad or the unlawful detention and arrests of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in March, 2003. We must always be mindful of that history when regulating the exercise of first amendment rights.

But nor should we be a captive of that history . The current ordinance governing parades, assemblies and athletic events has not been updated in 40 years. It is confusing and in need of clarification. And experience with parades and demonstrations over the years have convinced the city officials who regulate those events that they need a few additional tools to safeguard public safety and the flow of traffic, while also allowing for the free exercise of first amendment expression.

There is no reason our great City cannot simultaneously respect the first amendment, enforce the law and host the leaders of the world.

For those reasons, I am voting “yes” on the ordinances.

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