Zoned out: ACLU sues Cleveland for fencing protesters out of Republican convention

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The city of Cleveland has drawn a 3.3 square mile zone around the site of the Republican National Convention, banishing any public gatherings in that area. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued, calling the measure a violation of free speech rights.

The civil rights group argued in the lawsuit, which it filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Eastern Division on Tuesday, that the rules imposed by the city and Mayor Frank Jackson violate free speech protections under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“The restrictions on speech put in place by the city of Cleveland are arbitrary, unnecessary and unjustifiable,” said Christine Link, executive director for the ACLU of Ohio. “The current rules for demonstrations at the RNC are actively blocking groups from all sides of the political spectrum from participating in their government.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three antithetic coalitions: Citizens for Trump, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, and Organize Ohio, which want the size of the 'Event Zone' reduced and restrictions on it loosened. The lawsuit argues that the zone is so large that it imposes “absurdly” broad limits on everyone living or working downtown, while demanding that the rules be revised immediately.

“We did not experience these restrictions when the Republican National Convention came to New York City [in 2004],” Norman Siegel, a civil rights and civil liberties lawyer, told RT. “In fact, people were in front and at the back of Madison Square Garden [where the convention was held] and were able to hand out leaflets.”

While talking with Cleveland lawyers, he said the restrictions and arbitrary rules applying to the 'Event Zone' did not meet the Supreme Court’s standard for free speech activity, adding that he is hoping that the federal court will find the same.

Siegel also pointed out that when the convention was held in New York, the police department permitted people to camp in Central Park after hours and a gymnasium floor was made available for others. As of Tuesday, officials had not agreed to allow camping during the convention in Cleveland, which is when he believes the first confrontations are likely to take place.

The Republican National Convention in Cleveland is expected to host 2,472 delegates, while attracting major campaign contributors, lobbyists, and 15,000 credentialed members of the media. The convention is also expected to draw 50,000 visitors to the city.

The ACLU’s complaint argues that the convention “will thus provide an opportunity for groups and individuals to voice their opinions directly to the leaders and decision makers of the Republican Party, to national and international media, and to people across and around the world who will watch Convention coverage.”

Under the city’s current rules, no permits will be issued “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,” according to the complaint.

The ACLU argues that even along the southern border, the rules are restrictive.

“The City will only allow permit holders to use that route for 50 minutes each, and only 18 of these 50-minute parade slots are available during the entire four-day [Republican] Convention,” states the complaint.

Other rules prohibit the issuance of permits for any events in parks located within the event zone throughout the entire duration of the convention, except for art and public installations in two small ones. Additionally, no objects can be placed in the zone for making public speeches, “even the proverbial soapbox,” during the entire convention.

The complaint also points out that at least 90 to 100 homeless people live in the event zone area.

“By designating many of their basic, everyday necessities as contraband, and drawing an unreasonably wide zone for enforcement, the City is subjecting the homeless residents to unnecessary encounters with the police, and interfering with their rights to liberty, privacy and movement,” states the complaint.

The suit further argues that the city is trampling on First Amendment rights by drawing out the application process for permits, with some left pending for as long as four months, leaving organizers in limbo.

One of the plaintiffs, Citizens for Trump, which is based in Spring, Texas, is organizing a large-scale grassroots effort to assist Donald Trump in winning the Republican nomination and the general election in November of 2016. Included in the coalition are Truckers for Trump, Bikers for Trump, Women United for Trump, and Tea Partiers for Trump, among others.

They applied for a permit in April that would, among other things, allow them to organize a parade including 104 trucks, 100 motorcycles, four horses, and over 5,000 walking participants. The city has acknowledged receipt of the application but failed to grant or deny a permit, or respond to the application in any way, for that matter.

Another plaintiff, Organize Ohio, a progressive community organizing a coalition of 20 partners, including Northeast Ohioans for Budget Lending Equality, United Clevelander Against Poverty, the Shaker Square Alliance, and the Ohio Fair Lending Coalition, applied for a permit in March, but have yet to hear if it will be granted or not. The third plaintiff is the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit homeless advocate organization.

The ACLU also wants to force the city to immediately act upon permit applications from groups seeking to protest the GOP convention.

“Delays approving permits are already having a chilling effect on speech,” ACLU’s Link said.

Cleveland spokesman Dan Williams said on Tuesday that the city doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits, according to the Associated Press.

In a related story, the city of Cleveland issued a 15-page document listing special regulations that will be put into force during the convention. Carrying swords or axes and operating drones will be strictly prohibited, but packing heat in the city will still be permitted because of the state’s open-carry gun laws.

Open-carry laws permit any gun owner to legally don a holstered pistol in public, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

The city of Cleveland has no authority to ban guns in the 'Event Zone,' although the Secret Service can impose restrictions in the arena itself.