Thursday, February 13, 2003


Freedom to March and Freedom of Speech

This past week a federal judge ruled that the City of New York could prevent an extimated crowd of 100,000 antiwar demonstrators from marching in Manhattan this Saturday to protest the upcoming war against Iraq. Instead, the city will allow 10,000 of them to assemble at a stationary location.

The protestors had requested a permit for more than 100,000 people to march down First Avenue past the United Nations, west on 42nd Street and north to Central Park. The City denied the permit, arguing that the march presented safety, crowd control, and security risks given that the city and the country are at orange alert, the second highest level of security awareness. The City's position was upheld on Monday in an opinon by Barbara S. Jones of United States District Court in Manhattan, and upheld again by a panel of the Second Circuit.

The court argued that the City's parade permit scheme was content netural and reasonable and did not discriminate against the protesters on the basis of their viewpoint. But the case is an example of how formally neutral rules about freedom of speech can have predictable effects in treating different viewpoints differently. in the past year, for example, New York awarded permits for the Puerto Rican Day parade, the Dominican Day parade, and the St. Patrick's Day parade, all of which had crowds over 100,000. The difference was that these parades are scheduled well in advance, and the security risks are predictably smaller than a parade about an issue of major political importance about which fevers are running high. What that means is that protests on political issues of the immediate moment that people disagree about heatedly are disfavored in comparison to parades celebrating, for example, how wonderful it is to be Irish in New York. It's even possible that a parade organized in favor of the war in Iraq, might draw less hostile crowds than an anti-war rally, and so would cause less problems for officials.

I have no reason to believe that the City officials were motivated by opposition to the antiwar cause. However, in general city bureacrats do like things quiet and orderly, and so are likely to view mass protests on controversial subjects as a major headache. Allowing them to avoid awarding permits for such demonstrations is one way in which present first amendment doctrines shape how protest occurs in the United States.


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