Thursday, March 01, 2007

Major Free Speech Victory in DC

On Sept. 27, 2002, over 600 people were arrested at Pershing Park in Washington, DC, and then were held over night in jail with their hands tied to their ankles. Those arrested were protesting the fall meetings of the IMF and World Bank, as well as threats of war against Iraq. As WSWS reported the next day,

Over 600 demonstrators were arrested Friday in Washington DC during the first day of protests against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which are holding their annual meetings beginning this Sunday in the nation’s capital. The local authorities, egged on by the Bush administration and backed by the media, effectively suspended constitutional rights for those seeking to express their opposition to globalization and to the impending US military attack on Iraq.

District of Columbia police chief Charles Ramsey mobilized an unprecedented number of cops, more than 3,000 in all, heavily outnumbering the nonviolent demonstrators. Of the 649 people reported arrested by early evening, only five were charged with destruction of property, while all the others were charged with parading without a permit or failing to obey police orders to disperse.

A lawsuit was subsequently brought by the Partnership for Civil Justice, and in a major victory for the First Amendment, the city has now agreed to pay four of the plaintiffs $50,000 each and to expunge their arrest records. Perhaps more importantly for principles of free speech, the settlement also mandates that DC police must undergo training in crowd control – which will include new prohibitions on certain police tactics that have become common in recent years.

As an email sent out by the Partnership for Civil Justice on Wednesday explains,

The settlement obligates the District of Columbia to provide, and document, training to all officers employed within the Special Operations Division, the specialized unit within the MPD which is assigned to protest activity. The training and documentation required to be provided to SOD officers will include warnings that no officer may arrest any protestor for parading or demonstrating without a permit, detailed descriptions of new restrictions on the use of police lines, new rules that prohibit the SOD from requiring protestors to have a permit and from sending protest organizers to other agencies for secondary permits (a tactic the SOD has routinely used to prevent or frustrate protest), as well as the rights of protestors to engage in free speech without unlawful police interference.

In order to ensure accountability and responsibility, each SOD officer must sign a written statement attesting that he or she has received written notice of the provisions of the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act which sets forth restrictions and obligations upon the police in the context of free speech activities. The documentation will be required to be maintained at the SOD. The First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act was enacted by the D.C. Council in response to this and other cases detailing widespread violations of the constitutional rights of protestors in Washington, D.C.

There is also a class action lawsuit still pending for 400 others arrested that day.

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