POLITICS

Protesters Fight Cleveland's Plan To Restrict Free Speech During GOP Convention

The city proposes to lock down an area over three square miles.

A federal judge in Cleveland said Thursday that the city's proposed restrictions on protesters during the Republican National Convention put too much of a squeeze on free speech.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin issued a preliminary injunction that rejects the city's plan to establish a roughly 3.3-square-mile "event zone" encompassing most of downtown Cleveland. 

The idea was that within the zone, people would need a permit to protest and that those demonstrations would be restricted to specific times and areas out of sight of the Republican delegates. 

But critics argued that the event zone was far too large, sweeping through parts of Cleveland that have nothing to do with the convention. 

Gwin, who delivered his opinion orally according to Cleveland.com, cited multiple concerns over the city's plan, including the “unduly large” zone, tight restrictions on the use of public parks, and time and space limits on would-be protesters.

The city's rules would limit each permit-holding protest group to a single 50-minute window along a designated parade route. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, along with progressive and conservative activists, said the route was too far from Quicken Loans Arena, the main site of the convention. Delegates would be unlikely to see the demonstrators, which would negate the point of demonstrating. 

In court filings, the ACLU called the restrictions "draconian" and "arbitrary" and said they would effectively preclude the plaintiffs "and thousands of others from making their individual and collective voices heard."

The city had previously indicated it would appeal Gwin's order. As of Thursday afternoon, however, the two sides were locked in mediation at the court's behest, according to Steve David, communications manager for the ACLU of Ohio. Dan Williams, Cleveland's director of media relations, declined to give details, citing a city policy against discussing ongoing litigation.  

The ACLU of Ohio had filed suit against Cleveland on behalf of three plaintiffs: Citizens for Trump, a grassroots group that supports the presumptive Republican presidential nominee; Organize Ohio, a progressive activist group; and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit. 

“This is one of those examples where you see how those regulations are making no discrimination regardless of people’s political affiliations," David said. 

Protesters were quite clear how they felt about Donald Trump at this May demonstration in Washington, D.C.
Protesters were quite clear how they felt about Donald Trump at this May demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Cleveland officials expect the Republican National Convention, which runs July 18 to 21, to attract an estimated 50,000 additional visitors to the city. Both party and city officials are bracing for potential chaos in light of the routinely violent encounters between protesters and supporters at Donald Trump's rallies and the candidate's own predictions there would be "riots" if GOP leaders deny him the nomination. 

Notably, guns would be allowed in the event zone, as Cleveland cannot overrule Ohio state laws on open and concealed carry. (The Secret Service has already prohibited guns inside Quicken Loans Arena.)

Items that would be banned in the event zone include metal-tipped umbrellas, coolers, drones, long knives, sabers, swords, nunchucks, bicycle locks and chains, gas masks, canned goods and tennis balls. The restrictions even specify a precise width and thickness for the wooden or plastic sticks of protest signs.

The ACLU noted that the city was even banning soapboxes: The rules prohibit “use of a podium, platform, pedestal, stand or similar object to make a public speech.” 

"Instead, the speakers are allowed to compete to use the single 'official' Speakers Platform, which the city will assign by permit for 30-minute increments during limited hours in a park blocks away from the convention," the ACLU said in court filings.

The event zone would encompass three major sports stadiums -- Quicken Loans Arena, the Cleveland Browns Stadium and Progressive Field -- as well as the Port of Cleveland, the Cleveland State University campus and a swath of public housing.

The city said that people who have a legitimate need to carry banned items in the zone -- including the homeless -- would be exempt from enforcement.

"Unfortunately, that requires a lot of discretion on the part of law enforcement. We want to minimize unnecessary contact with police as much as possible," David said, noting that the Cleveland Police Department is still under court supervision following a damning report by the U.S. Department of Justice over civil rights violations. 

Cleveland had planned a broad restricted zone for the Republican National Convention in July.
Cleveland had planned a broad restricted zone for the Republican National Convention in July.

Chief among the ACLU's requests is that the city shrink the size of the event zone. 

"The fact that Cleveland felt the need to institute this 3-mile zone flies in the face of what they claim to be the 'least restrictive convention rules' that we’ve seen,” David said.

The ACLU has pointed out that the 2004 Republican convention in New York City had a smaller secure or "hard" zone but no buffer or event zone beyond it and that the security zone outside the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver was about 0.14 square miles. The largest security zone to date was at the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, Florida -- it encompassed 2.7 square miles, roughly three-quarters the size of Cleveland’s. 

With less than a month to settle the dispute, the hope is that the city and the activists can find common ground in mediation. Cleveland could also appeal the judge's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

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