What Constitutes 'Free Speech'?
We were shocked here at the Addams-Melman House to read a story in our local newspaper yesterday that reported our City of Bath was working on an ordinance adopting rules for mass gatherings. (See the article here)
A quick review of those in our house made it clear we all felt that this ordinance was more than problematic for local activists who wish to exercise their constitutional rights of free assembly and free speech - emphasis on the word 'free'. The City of Bath wants to put a price tag on 'free speech'.
First thing I did was to call the City Clerk to get a copy of the ordinance. I next called a lawyer and then filed an official complaint with the Maine ACLU. I also sent an email around to local activists notifying them of the following:
This morning I called Bath City Hall and got a copy of the proposed ‘mass gathering’ ordinance. I’ve put in a call to the chief of police and am awaiting his response. I believe the proposed ordinance violates our first amendment free speech rights by putting a price tag on peaceful assembly. The $100 admin fee plus the requirement to have $1 million liability insurance policy is an onerous impediment to public assembly.
The Bath City Council will hear this ordinance at 6:00 pm (first item on the agenda) on Wednesday, April 6. I plan to go and speak out against this ordinance. I would hope others will take a look at this attempt to regulate free speech as well. Let me know if you want a copy of the ordinance and I can email it to you.
I’ve been through this fire drill once before while living in Florida. In 1983 in Orlando the city created a new ordinance that gave the police the right to assign a price tag to their monitoring of protests. In our case the Orlando police decided we had to pay $1,500 to cover the cops they assigned to our protest before they would give us a permit. We got a lawyer and took them to local court and lost. We then appealed to the Federal District Court and won and then the City of Orlando appealed to the US Supreme Court which eventually upheld the ruling of the Federal District Court that was in our favor. So the city had to strike their ordinance, refund our $1,500 and pay considerable legal fees to our lawyer. (See a similar court ruling from Maine here)
In the proposed Bath ordinance they say: “The operator of the mass gathering shall provide a cash deposit to the City covering proposed City costs, which amount shall be determined by the Chief of Police.”
This is what I would call unnecessary arbitrary powers that could restrict free assembly and speech. What happens if someone as poor as a church mouse wants to organize a protest and they can't pay the fees?
It’s déjà vu all over again......