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Protest: Too Much?

City may charge for parades and rallies -- unless city council continues to make exceptions for nearly everyone

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Pittsburgh City Council chose an auspicious moment -- St. Patrick's Day -- to discuss requiring the organizers of parades and political rallies to pay the city's cost for hosting them.

 

While large-scale events typically require police protection and other public services, the cash-strapped city has never had a procedure for assessing those costs. That's raised concerns and arguments about fairness from organizers of political rallies and others. Explaining "whatever you do has to apply to everybody," City Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow proposed a sliding scale to cover events ranging from sidewalk leafleting (which requires no permit or fee) to monster events like the Regatta (for which the city hopes to recoup all costs). For protest rallies, marches and other activities protected by the First Amendment, the city would cover the first $750 of expenses, with sponsoring organizations paying half of any expenses beyond that. An exception would be made for non-recurring events like war protests that are sponsored by groups who can't afford to pay. In such cases, the city would ask sponsors to minimize the cost of their events, as well as to sign an affidavit testifying to their indigence. Morrow acknowledged this would most likely apply in political protests staged by groups like the NAACP and added, "I don't know that we're going investigate" claims of indigence.

 

Council appeared as interested in scoring political points as in protecting political protests. Councilor Jim Motznik proposed that an exemption be given to events that, like the St. Patrick's Day parade, are staged "for the sole purpose of promoting or celebrating ... the heritage of a specific ethnic group." When Morrow pointed out that such an exemption would leave Veterans Day organizers paying for their parade, councilor Doug Shields proposed an amendment exempting military groups. That prompted Motznik to suggest that labor marches should be exempted too, so as to "include everybody." Who is left to help pay for city services under this proposal remains unclear.

 

Morrow's plan will be the subject of an as-yet-unscheduled public hearing, followed by a council vote. But the ultimate test may take place further along Grant Street, in the federal courthouse. Since last fall, the city's policy has been the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the NAACP and other groups who fear the city may use fees to discourage protest. "In court they've been talking about no exceptions -- everybody has to pay," says the ACLU Pittsburgh chapter's head, Vic Walczak. Compared to that stance, the new proposal "sounds like a step in the right direction." But the ACLU hasn't seen the new proposal, and Walczak worries about the details. "If you've got $500 in your bank account because you haven't paid your staff this month, does that make you [no longer] indigent?"

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