Marion City Council to review new language for demonstrations ordinance

The ACLU has been working with city to change the rule after September 2016 incident

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MARION — The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the city of Marion have worked together to draft a new ordinance for public parades and demonstrations after a police officer confronted a candidate last year over politicking in a median.

The Marion City Council is set to review the language Thursday.

The collaboration began after the ACLU sent a letter to the city in January, asking that police stop enforcing a code provision pertaining to parades, marches, walks and demonstrations, according to an ACLU news release. The January letter was sent on behalf of Rick Stewart, former candidate for Linn County sheriff.

In September 2016, 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. A Marion police officer gave him a copy of the provision that deems any parade, demonstration, march or rally unlawful without a permit.

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

Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director, called the code provision “unconstitutional.”

In January, the city announced it would stop enforcing the ordinance.

Under new language, a permit would not be required if the demonstration on public sidewalks, streets or space is legal and does not impede pedestrians or traffic.

A permit also would not be required if organizers expect fewer than 50 people, or if the assembly is for “an immediate and spontaneous expression of views in response to a public event.”

A detailed permit still is required for all other parades, marches and demonstrations.

The proposed language says a denial of a permit from the city manager would be acceptable if information in the application is false or insufficient to ensure public safety, or if the applicant refuses to comply with the requirements for public safety.

Stewart said he was happy to see the city responding to the request to change the ordinance.

“I knew I had to stand up for free speech when my own rights were denied under the existing ordinance,” Stewart said in a statement.

In an email, Marion Police Chief Joseph McHale said he supports the change.

“The ability for citizens like Mr. Stewart to peacefully challenge laws utilizing our political process are at the core of what the Founding Fathers of our country envisioned,” he said.

The council is set to review the change at its next meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in City Hall.

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

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