NYC: another victory in Critical Mass struggle

This comes, of course, in response to activist pressure. On Aug. 17, a lively grassroots “public hearing” on the proposed regulations was held at St. Marks Church in the East Village, where at least three City Council members spoke out in opposition to the new regs. The official public hearing scheduled (somewhat perversely) for police headquarters later this week, has been cancelled. From the New York Times, Aug. 19:

Police Move to Ease Proposed Rules Regarding Permits for Protests
The Police Department has scaled back plans to require permits for small protests or processions, abandoning proposals that would have required such permits when pedestrians gather on the sidewalk, or when as few as two bicyclists or walkers ignore traffic laws, officials said yesterday.

The proposals, announced last month, had drawn criticism from some who said they were too broad and threatened to suffocate spontaneous demonstrations.

In sum, the Police Department wants to replace three rules with two. No longer would groups need permits to gather on the sidewalk, as the department is remaining silent on that issue.

The department wants to require permits for groups of 10 or more bicyclists or pedestrians — instead of 2 — who plan to travel more than two city blocks without complying with traffic laws, officials said.

The department is still pushing the previous rule to require permits for groups of 20 or more bicyclists or pedestrians who obey traffic laws.

“The revisions are being proposed to address concerns expressed about the earlier language,” Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said yesterday.

The original proposal was unveiled in a public notice filed with the city in July and would have required a parade permit for groups of 35 or more people on the sidewalk. It also said that groups of two or more bicyclists would be considered a protest and would thus require a permit. This requirement was seen by some as growing out of the department’s ongoing dispute with participants of Friday night protests in Manhattan by Critical Mass bicyclists, who advocate nonpolluting forms of transportation.

Police Department lawyers will continue to grapple with the issue of just how many people can participate in a demonstration without first applying for police approval. Recent court rulings have found the department’s parade regulations to be too vague and have recommended that they be clarified.

The Police Department’s decision followed a meeting between administration officials and members of the City Council earlier this week.

“The Council met with the administration to outline our deep concerns about the proposal and its potential to compromise the First Amendment rights of New Yorkers,” Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn said.

She continued: “We are pleased the Police Department has withdrawn this proposal. We look forward to working with the administration to develop guidelines that address the need for the permitting of large groups, while also respecting New Yorkers’ right to gather freely.”

Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who represents bicyclists who take part in the Critical Mass rides, applauded the revised proposal and claimed victory, saying it showed that “people power can beat police power.”

He said he would wait to see what new proposals the Police Department made before judging them. But he said the department and the Bloomberg administration would face “continued, organized vigorous opposition” to anything that erodes “our First Amendment rights of expression.”

At the heart of the issue is just how to define, numerically, a public parade or procession. The Police Department has said it believes that it has the authority to make arrests under the existing parade regulations, and arrests were often made, especially during the Critical Mass rides. But when court rulings found the regulations too vague, the department was left to rewrite them.

Police officials had scheduled a public hearing about the proposal next week, but since many aspects of the original proposal are being withdrawn or rewritten, the hearing has been canceled.

Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he remained concerned about any future proposal that would require a police permit for a lawful bike ride or procession of vehicles.

“We see no reason for requiring police permits for bike rides or vehicle processions if they obey traffic laws,” he said about the requirement that would apply to groups of 20 who obey traffic laws. “And in those rare instances where large groups violate traffic laws, the police can and should enforce those laws.”

Mr. Siegel also questioned whether the department even has the authority to redefine when a parade permit is needed, saying he believed the issue was for the City Council to decide.

Although Mr. Browne has said the police commissioner’s powers are clear, Mr. Siegel said Ms. Quinn, and other members of the Council, seemed to be “missing in action” in the debate in the recent weeks over whether rewriting the rules was a job for lawmakers or police officials.

“The City Council seems to have folded their tents when they should have been out there saying to the Police Department, ‘You cannot do that; that is us,’ ” he said. “It was a usurpation of the executive over the legislative branch, and the City Council seemed to let this happen.”

See our last post on the Critical Mass struggle.