Public input sought on protesters’ rights

City officials are seeking public input on a set of proposed guidelines that aim to protect demonstrators’ rights to free speech and assembly during the 2008 Republican National Convention that will be held in the Twin Cities.

The Free Speech Work Group, a committee set up by the City Council to address concerns about balancing security measures while ensuring the rights of protesters, developed the so-called “operating principles” and held the first of several meetings to gather public input June 26 at City Hall. The operating principles outline the city’s civil rights priorities and will be integrated into Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan for the convention.

“The role of the city is to ensure that the convention does not disrupt the lives of our citizens and that (demonstrators’) constitutional right to free speech and assembly are not violated,” said Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), a member of the Free Speech Work Group. Other members of the group are Mayor R.T. Rybak, Police Chief Tim Dolan, City Council Members Ralph Remington (10th Ward) and Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), City Attorney Jay Heffern, Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights Director Michael Jordan and legal counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

Some of the principles in the draft include:

Law enforcement’s security efforts should not make overly broad restrictions on demonstrations or demonstrators

Demonstrators should be notified of requirements for assembly permits in a timely manner

Law enforcement officers will not engage in lengthy and unlawful detention, such as searching and fingerprinting demonstrators accused of minor offenses

Pens should not be used to corral arrested demonstrators or bystanders.

Police will not be allowed to conduct surveillance of political groups and activists participating it legally protected activities.

A full list of the draft principles can be found on the city’s website. Residents may submit comments on the guidelines by e-mailing them to [email protected] or by mailing them to Minneapolis City Clerk, 350 S. Fifth St., Minneapolis MN 55415. The deadline for submitting comments is July 6.

The principles are an attempt to prevent the problems that plagued both parties’ national conventions in 2004. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, demonstrators were relegated to “free-speech zones” often far from the convention site. At the Republican National Convention in New York, the New York City Police Department conducted at least one year of surveillance on people planning protests across the country. During the convention there, the NYPD arrested more than 1,800 protesters and bystanders, who were held in an abandoned garage along the Hudson River. The tactics drew the ire of civil liberties groups and free speech advocates.

Other draft principles address the concerns people who live and work in the city — one principle, for example, notes that the security plan should minimize disruptions like unnecessary street closings.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) has estimated the number of demonstrators could reach 100,000 over the course of the convention.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU-MN, said he thinks the Work Group’s principles are a good start to protecting people’s right to assemble.

“The questions isn’t whether there are going to be demonstrators — there will be demonstrators. And demonstrators have First Amendment rights to assemble and to march. It is more fundamental, frankly, than political conventions because [the First Amendment] pre-dates them,” Samuelson said.

The Department of Homeland Security has designated the 2008 Republican National Convention as a “National Special Security Event,” and the U.S. Secret Service will design and implement the security plan in cooperation with local law enforcement.

Chuck Holtman, a South Minneapolis resident, was the only member of the public to speak at the June 26 hearing at City Hall, where he expressed concern over whether protesters would be shut out of the event.

“Everything should be done to facilitate and support those of us who are doing a very important civic duty by stepping forward to express views that may not necessarily be comfortable to everyone,” he told the Work Group.

Holtman also said he was concerned that the Minneapolis-St. Paul Host Committee, the bipartisan group of business and community leaders organizing the event, and the Secret Service would overrule local authorities.

“The work group’s principles seem very strong, but it’s a question of how they will be carried forward and what control the city will have,” he said. “There’s a substantial amount of authority that those bodies hold over what life is like in our city during [the convention].”

Holtman suggested that the city work to make sure that press credentials are not limited, so that bloggers and independent media outlets would be able to participate in the coverage of the convention.

Remington said the group is only in the preliminary stages of planning for the convention.

“We’re just getting to the point where we’re looking at other models — Boston and New York — and what worked and what didn’t,” Remington said.

He encouraged people to contribute their comments and attend future meetings that the group will be holding in the months leading up to the Republican National Convention, which will be held Sept. 1-4, 2008.