Marion council passes updated public demonstration ordinance

ACLU worked with city to change the rule after 2016 incident

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MARION — The Marion City Council on Thursday passed a new ordinance for public demonstrations.

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

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, a 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 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.

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

Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said she is pleased with the change, according to an ACLU news release.

“In our democracy, we recognize that the exercise of political speech, and especially dissent, is a source of strength, not weakness,” Bettis said in the release. “We’re grateful our client was willing to stand up for his rights and the rights of others, and recognize the city of Marion for being willing to change to improve its ordinance to protect those free speech rights.”

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

A permit also is not 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.

Stewart said he is glad to see the ordinance pass.

“I congratulate the City Council for making this important change,” he said in the ACLU news release. “The First Amendment protects all of us, and I felt that it was my responsibility to vigorously defend it, not just for myself, but for my children and grandchildren.”

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

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