Last month, the San Antonio Free
Speech Coalition learned oral arguments in their case against the
city and its revised parade ordinance would be heard by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in
New Orleans. I squeezed into the group's serious meeting on April Fool's
Day to see how the exhaustively active group would handle the April 27
one-hour-plus hearing. It couldn't have been a better meeting for a
neophyte like me to get briefed (albeit one-sidedly) on the history of
the contentious parade ordinance and its implications for free speech.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the primary soldiers in this particular battle, hosted the event and provided the bulk of the 30 or so attendees. Others included the proud octogenarian member of the Communist Party to my left and his friend, Susan Ives, the leader of the local Peace Center to my right. Amy Kastely, the lead attorney for the Free Speech Coalition, launched into her clients' grievances with a Star Wars-like beginning: "The long saga of this challenge that we're bringing begins many years ago ... "
The updated, quick-and-dirty version is as follows: The City of San Antonio has long charged fees for parades and assemblies held on its streets and requiring some sort of traffic blockage, police presence and clean-up. Kastely and the Free Speech Coalition claimed that after massive immigration rights marches in 2006, a new parade ordinance quickly appeared applying a different fee schedule for First Amendment and non-First Amendment events. And who decides what event constitutes "First Amendment" and thus lowered fees? Why, the San Antonio Police Department, of course. Law enforcement has an awesome record with those sorts of determinations. Moreover, some proven, popular events like the Diez y Seis Parade and the Martin Luther King Day March would be exempted. Giving the police the broad power to decide who marches, revels or protests and how much they should pay seemed a tad unconstitutional to U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, who issued an injunction halting enforcement of the ordinance on February 21, 2008.
Assistant City Attorney Debi Klein says parade ordinances vary nationwide, with some cities enforcing much more stringent permit requirements than San Antonio.
“We’ve given every opportunity to allow people to have those [First Amendment] events at no cost,” Klein said, pointing out that the City picks up the first $3,000, and will make arrangements for expenses above that amount in some cases. She also notes that applicants can indicate whether they believe their event qualifies for First Amendment status when they apply for a permit, and the police department consults with the City Attorney’s office. “We err on the side of caution and presume it’s a First Amendment event.”
Klein said she expects the loser at the Fifth to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
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