Rights groups warn city that new public assembly rules may be unconstitutional

Plaintiffs in a First Amendment lawsuit challenging the process by which the City of Richmond authorizes parades have agreed to dismiss their case now that the City Council has substantially rewritten its parade ordinance.
As previously written, the ordinance gave the police department unlimited discretion to decide who would be given permission to hold parades. Under the new ordinance, adopted by City Council on November 10, the police must issue permits when certain guidelines are met.
The ACLU of Virginia challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance in late September, filing a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of local groups that had encountered difficulties obtaining parade permits. Those groups -- Coalition Against the Occupation, Food Not Bombs, Richmond A.N.S.W.E.R., and the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality -- agree that the objectives of the lawsuit have been attained, but are distressed by new provisions that affect the right to assemble on sidewalks and other public places.
For the first time, however, the ordinance now requires a permit for any demonstration of more than 10 people that might have a “tendency to interfere” with pedestrian traffic or with the normal use of public property. An organization planning such a demonstration must apply for a permit 15 days in advance.
“Although the City has repealed the ordinance we challenged in court, it has enacted a new ordinance that adds sweeping new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest,” said Shawn O’Hearn of Food Not Bombs. “Under the old ordinance, a permit was required only for parades. Now, it seems that virtually any kind of demonstration on public property will require a permit.”
“Frankly, we don’t know what the new ordinance means when it refers to demonstrations that have a ‘tendency’ to interfere with the normal use of the property,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “Surely, the city does not need 15 days advance notice whenever 11 people gather in a public place, but the ordinance could be read to require just that. We are deeply concerned that these new requirements will have a severe chilling effect on free speech in Richmond.”

Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022