ACLU of Iowa wants Marion to change public demonstration ordinance

Letter sent to city on behalf of former Linn County sheriff candidate

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MARION — The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa on Tuesday sent a letter to the city of Marion on behalf of Rick Stewart, former candidate for Linn County sheriff, stating that Marion police and a city code violated Stewart’s right to public political protest.

In the letter, Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa’s legal director, describes a Sept. 23 incident during which she says Stewart was holding signs in support of presidential candidate Gary Johnson while standing in a public median on Seventh Avenue next to the Marion City Square Park.

At about 6:25 p.m., a Marion police officer gave Stewart a copy of Marion city code section 42.08(1) on parades, marches, walks and demonstrations, she said.

The code deems any parade, demonstration, march or rally is unlawful without a permit, even if held on public ground. Application for permit must be filed with the city clerk, containing a description of the proposed activities, their duration and location. The application must be filled out 72 hours before the event.

The officer told Stewart he could not continue the demonstration without a permit, according to the ACLU letter.

Bettis said Stewart asked the officer if he could continue the demonstration if he moved to the nearby sidewalk.

Bettis said the ordinance requiring a permit for a public demonstration violates citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech and protest.

“This ordinance flatly prohibits constitutionally protected speech that takes place in a traditional public forum — the city street or sidewalk — unless a permit is not obtained 72 hours in advance,” Bettis said in the letter.

Bettis references the Supreme Court case McCullen vs. Coakley, which set the precedent that demonstrations on public ground could be considered unlawful if the speaker were directly in the way of other pedestrians or traffic.

“On sidewalks, which are traditional public forums, and where pedestrians are allowed to freely come and go, any permit requirement that would otherwise prohibit political speech when the speaker is not obstructing other pedestrians or interfering with traffic is definitely unduly burdensome under the First Amendment,” Bettis said.

Stewart also said in the letter that the city ordinance is not specific enough to positively serve the government interest, in that small demonstrations don’t warrant city notification because the group is small enough that it doesn’t present a public safety threat.

Bettis said the ACLU “demands” the city stop enforcing the ordinance and add two additional amendments within 30 days:

“Define ‘parade, demonstration, or rally of any kind’ to include only groups of 50 or more people, and no less,” according to the letter. “Eliminate the 72-hour prior notice requirement in its entirety. In addition, any permitting deadlines must include exceptions for spontaneous protests or demonstrations.”

Marion police, the city’s attorney and city manager did not immediately return calls for comment.

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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