Protect the First Amendment in Poughkeepsie sign now

Do you believe in the First Amendment to our Constitution?

I do.

Did you know that some on the City of Poughkeepsie Common Council (Mayor Nancy Cozean and her supporters) have recently proposed a completely over-the-top ordinance with drastic new limits to our constitutional rights to assemble there-- new rules that would mandate literally two million dollars' worth of liability insurance be provided by any organization sponsoring a "gathering of ten (10) or more persons in such manner as shall have been planned in advance around a central theme or purpose which uses or occupies space on public premises including but not limited to public streets and sidewalks, public parkland, City-owned or controlled buildings"-- and that any group wishing to hold an event with ten or more people in attendance would be "required to file a Permit Application and receive City approval thereof no less than twenty-eight (28) days prior to the holding of same"?

[Thanks to the City of Poughkeepsie's Seventh Ward Councilwoman Gwen Johnson for having the guts recently to stand up and deny unanimous consent when this proposal was rushed before the Common Council for a vote-- but it appears they'll be again trying to pass it on Monday August 6th-- contact Mayor/Council here now:!]

Sad but true...(and yet another reason to support Co. Leg. Fred Knapp's strong progressive run for mayor)!

Fact: The new two-million-dollar-liability-insurance-minimum alone could well make it impossible for us to continue the work we started empowering county residents in January 1996 as CHANGES (Citizens Helping A New Generation Evolve Sustainably) and then the Real Majority Project with the late great Lateef Islam and Mae Parker-Harris organizing the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Marches for Social and Economic Justice, annual Labor Day Rallies, and Holiday Interfaith Candlelight Vigils for Economic Justice in Poughkeepsie-- with literally thousands of different county residents attending these events from across Dutchess for over a decade now (for this reason a reporter for a local newspaper contacted us for comment on this).

[see "Civil Rights and the First Amendment" by David L. Hudson, Jr./First Amendment Center: ]

Also-- given (still!) no true youth center in the City of Poughkeepsie, and given the fact that the mall prohibits even teenage mothers from pushing baby carriages inside, a number of concerned parents there have expressed real concern to me that this new ordinance will mean that the many kids gathering in parks across the City may be harassed, arrested, and/or fined-- and on the way to being mixed up with the criminal justice system.

Important-- to see the type of ordinance re: assemblies that SHOULD be on the books in Poughkeepsie, check out Washington, D.C.'s First Amendment Assemblies Act of 2004 (reality already there) and the New York City First Amendment Act (proposed) here: ; (more on this below)!

Let's also not forget what our county's own Eleanor Roosevelt said in Article 20 of the very Universal Declaration of Human Rights she drafted: "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association."
[see ; ]

She also said this: "The destiny of human rights is in the hands of all our citizens in all our communities."

Fact: Our founding fathers chose "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" to be the very first amendment to our Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
[ ]

Getting down to brass tacks-- here, specifically (unfortunately) is some of the language of what's been proposed for the City of Poughkeepsie (read and weep; no-- don't mourn, organize):

"BE IT ORDAINED, by the Common Council of the City of Poughkeepsie, New York, that the language contained in 14-13 of the City of Poughkeepsie Code of Ordinances entitled "Parades, Demonstrations, Assemblages," be and is hereby repealed in its entirety and amended as follows:


The Parades, Demonstrations, Assemblages Ordinance of the City of Poughkeepsie enacted by the City Council, and any and all amendments thereto, are hereby repealed.

And that Chapter 15 is hereby amended to read as follows:


* Except as otherwise provided in this Chapter, the Applicant shall furnish a certificate of liability insurance covering the event to be held and naming the City of Poughkeepsie as an additional insured with limits of liability of at least $1,000,000 for each occurrence and $2,000,000 aggregate for bodily injury and $50,000 for each occurrence and $100,000 aggregate for property damage. All such policies must be written in the broadest form available by a company authorized to do business in NewYork State and of recognized financial standing which has been fully informed about the proposed event...

* Any person or entity wishing to hold a mass gathering and/or public event as defined herein on any public property or portion thereof owned and/or controlled by the City of Poughkeepsie is hereby required to file a Permit Application and receive City approval thereof no less than twenty-eight (28) days prior to the holding of same. Such approval shall be given only upon satisfaction of all City requirements imposed as conditions thereof and as required hereunder...

* In addition to any other penalty described in this Chapter, any person who violates the provisions of this Article IV shall be deemed guilty of an offense and shall be subject to a fine of no less that $100 or more than $1,000 for each separate violation...

* Mass Gathering and/or Public Event - A gathering of ten (10) or more persons in such manner as shall have been planned in advance around a central theme or purpose which uses or occupies space on public premises including but not limited to public streets and sidewalks, public parkland, City-owned or controlled buildings, public waterways, public airspace, public highways and thoroughfares, docks, walkways, bridges, mains or transmission lines, berms, shoulders or lands auxiliary or adjacent thereto; in such manner as would interfere with, obstruct, preclude or otherwise impact the normal and ordinary use thereof by the general public; and all such uses as the City may regulate or control as to time, place and manner under the provisions of any and all applicable laws, rules and regulations. Such events shall include but are not limited to festivals, parades, rallies, fairs, celebrations, ceremonies, marches, demonstrations, exhibitions, performances, arts and cultural events, and any other occurrence involving public gathering and/or attendance which is not otherwise considered a matter of right under prevailing law such as to be exempt from governmental regulation...

* The insurance coverage described hereinabove shall be increased by the City Administrator for good cause. As used herein the term "good cause" shall mean that the circumstances of the proposed event shall include one or more of the following: the number of attendees and/or participants shall be 150 or more persons; the inclusion of any animals other than domesticated cats and dogs; the inclusion of ride-on attractions such as roller-coasters, carousels, ferris wheels or other such devices; the inclusion of equipment or devices requiring connection to electricity or other independently-generated energy sources or utilities including but not limited to water and/or sewerage treatment systems; the presence and/or use of fireworks, explosive devices, firearms, weapons, fire, chemicals or other inherently hazardous or dangerous devices or materials or activities. The amount by which the City Administrator shall require an increase in such insurance coverage shall be no less than two (2) times the amounts in U.S. Dollars set forth in the preceding paragraph. In the event no such insurance coverage is available, the City Administrator may prohibit such activity or circumstance from inclusion in the event...

* The City shall have the authority to determine the location where all public events shall be held based upon the criteria hereinafter set forth. Such locations may be on the grounds of certain discreet public lands and facilities, including but not limited to: Bartlett Park, College Hill Park, Dongan Square, Earline Patrice Park at Mansion Square, Eastman Park, Hulme Park, Kaal Rock Park, King Street Park, Lincoln Park, Morgan Lake, Pershing Avenue Park, Pulaski Park, Reservoir Square, Soldier's Memorial Fountain, Spratt Park, Stitzel Field, Waryas Park, Wheaton Park, other City waterfront properties and facilities; or such City streets and thoroughfares as City shall approve of, determine and allow under the criteria set forth herein, and as shall be authorized and required hereunder..."

Up to you all now, folks-- sign on to this petition and pass it along to all you know!

Joel Tyner
Cofounder of Real Majority Project
County Legislator (Clinton/Rhinebeck)
324 Browns Pond Road
Staatsburg, NY 12580
[email protected]
(845) 876-2488

p.s. Feel free to call Mae as well at 485-3516 for more information on this; Councilwoman Gwen Johnson, to her credit, has also been putting a great deal of energy into fighting this; she can be reached at 454-5349.

p.p.s. This issue admittedly does have an additional personal dimension for me-- I grew up in the City of Poughkeepsie at the corner of Church and Cherry streets from 1964 to 1971 (and I'll be damned if I'm going to sit back, roll over, and play dead while our Constitution and Bill of Rights are ripped apart piece by piece in front of me). Period.

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Again-- THIS is the kind of language the City of Poughkeepsie should be embracing ...

[see ]

Washington D.C.'s First Amendment Assemblies Act of 2004
[Bill 15-968]

For the purposes of this title, the term "First Amendment assembly" means a demonstration, rally, parade, march, picket line, or other similar gathering conducted for the purpose of persons expressing their political, social, or religious views.

It is the declared public policy of the District of Columbia that persons and groups have a right to organize and participate in peaceful First Amendment assemblies on the streets, sidewalks, and other public ways, and in the parks of the District of Columbia, and to engage in First Amendment assembly near the object of their protest so they may be seen and heard, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to protect public safety, persons, and property, and to accommodate the interest of persons not participating in the assemblies to use the streets, sidewalks, and other public ways to travel to their intended destinations, and use the parks for recreational purposes...

A person or group who wishes to conduct a First Amendment assembly on a District street, sidewalk, or other public way, or in a District park, is not required to give notice or apply for approval of an assembly plan before conducting the assembly where:

(1) The assembly will take place on public sidewalks and crosswalks and will not prevent other pedestrians from using the sidewalks and crosswalks;

(2) The person or group reasonably anticipates that fewer than 50 persons will participate in the assembly, and the assembly will not occur on a District street; or

(3) The assembly is for the purpose of an immediate and spontaneous expression of views in response to a public event.

(e) The Mayor shall not enforce any user fees on persons or groups that organize or conduct First Amendment assemblies.

(f) The Mayor shall not require, separate from or in addition to the requirements for giving notice of or applying for approval of an assembly plan for a First Amendment assembly, that persons give notice to, or obtain a permit or plan from, the Chief of Police, or other District officials or agencies, as a prerequisite for making or delivering an address, speech, or sermon regarding any political, social, or religious subject in any District street, sidewalk, other public way, or park.

(g) The Mayor shall not require, separate from or in addition to the requirements for giving notice of or applying for approval of an assembly plan for a First Amendment assembly, that persons give notice to, or obtain a permit or plan from the Chief of Police, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, or any other District official or agency as a prerequisite for using a stand or structure in connection with such an assembly; provided, that a First Amendment assembly plan may contain limits on the nature, size, or number of stands or structures to be used as required to maintain public safety. Individuals conducting a First Amendment assembly under subsection (d) of this section may use a stand or structure so long as it does not prevent others from using the sidewalk.

Persons or groups providing notice to and applying for approval of a plan from the District government to conduct a First Amendment assembly on a District street, sidewalk, or other public way, or in a District park, shall not be required to obtain approval for the assembly from any other official, agency, or entity in the District government, including the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency, the Mayor's Special Events Task Group, or the Department of Parks and Recreation...

Nothing in this subsection is intended to restrict the authority of the MPD to arrest persons who engage in unlawful disorderly conduct, or violence directed at persons or property. Where participants in a First Amendment assembly, or other persons at the location of the assembly, engage in unlawful disorderly conduct, violence toward persons or property, or unlawfully threaten violence, the MPD shall, to the extent reasonably possible, respond by dispersing, controlling, or arresting the persons engaging in such conduct, and not by issuing a general order to disperse, thus allowing the First Amendment assembly to continue.

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One more good example for us here...

[see ]

We believe only the New York City Council, as the representatives of the people, have the authority to make laws that affect our fundamental freedoms. Assemble For Rights NYC has put forward legislation: The NYC First Amendment Act, which is designed to safeguard the full expression of our Constitutional rights while ensuring the public safety. We urge the City Council to adopt it. Below is a summary of the legislation we support.


The NYC First Amendment Act is a proposed amendment to the section of the City's Administrative Code which covers parade permitting. The Act is modeled closely on the District of Columbia's First Amendment Act of 2004.

The Act makes it City policy to facilitate the rights of people to organize and participate in peaceful assemblies, subject only to the restrictions absolutely necessary to protect public safety. It provides guidance for how the police are to handle public assemblies, whether or not they have permits. It provides for orders to disperse as a last resort, and requires that people be given both clear instructions and a meaningful opportunity to disperse before they can be arrested for failing to do so.

The proposed Act would eliminate "parading without a permit" as an arrestable offense under City law. Currently the charge of "parading without a permit" has often been leveled on people arrested in large groups. The current charge is highly problematic in that it involves no requirement of intent, it is a crime of strict liability. Meaning that one does not have to intend to be part of a group to be violating the law by 'parading'. The current law gives a dangerous amount of discretion to police in arresting individuals who assemble regardless of how they conduct themselves. The Police have other tools for dealing with genuinely disruptive crowds, such as the disorderly conduct statute, which prohibits both intentionally blocking traffic and disobeying a lawful order to disperse.

The Act removes the job of issuing permits from the exclusive control of the NYPD. The current system has allowed the police to refuse to issue permits to disfavored groups. The Act would give the power to issue permits with the City Council, so that they could set up an appropriate mechanism for issuing permits in a fair and even handed way. The council could consult with the NYPD to whatever extent they felt appropriate.

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"Curfews, Loitering, and Freedom of Association" by Adam Newton
[First Amendment Center Research Attorney]

The freedom of assembly is one of the few constitutional liberties that the Framers graced with an adverb, securing the right of the people "peaceably to assemble." Were the freedom of assembly limited to orderly gatherings in public parks, however, exercise of this right would implicate only clean streets and crowd control. But ideas, and the rights that protect them, are far more important.

The civil rights era in this country prompted the Supreme Court to consider the collective beliefs that animate crowds and the voice - be it roar or oration - with which the group speaks. This emphasis on a conceptual in addition to a corporeal right to meet and discuss ideas led to the recognition of a right of association. As the Supreme Court observed in 1958, "It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the 'liberty' assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech"...

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"Civil Rights and the First Amendment" by David L. Hudson, Jr.
[First Amendment Center Research Attorney]

The First Amendment played a crucial role in the epic struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others engaged in sit-ins, protests, marches and other demonstrations to force social change.

The rights of free speech and assembly enabled civil rights protesters on the streets of Birmingham and Selma, Ala., and other cities throughout the South to force society to improve the treatment of African-Americans.

"The First Amendment right of assembly was the foundation of the civil rights movement of the 1950s," said Western Kentucky University journalism professor Linda Lumsden, who has written on the role of freedom of assembly in the women's-suffrage movement.

"The civil rights movement featured various forms of free expression," University of Columbia law professor Jack Greenberg said in an interview in 1999.

Greenberg, who served as the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. from 1961 until 1984, listed the petition for redress of grievances by students in Columbia, S.C., the march from Selma to Birmingham, the freedom rides, the sit-ins and the demonstrations in Birmingham as prime examples of civil rights advocates engaging in First Amendment-protected activities.

University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Richards, author of Freedom's Voice: The Perilous Present and Uncertain Future of the First Amendment, agreed that "the First Amendment was the key tool of the civil rights movement."

"Without the First Amendment and the protections breathed into it by the courts, the movement would not have flourished as much as it did," Richards said.

Lumsden said that "the peaceful, nonviolent protesting raised public consciousness, challenged people's beliefs and attacked the forces of power."

"The Supreme Court is influenced by the cultural, political and societal influences of the times," Lumsden said. "It helped the civil rights protesters that their cause was so sympathetic."

Not only was the First Amendment essential to the civil rights movement, but the movement itself also galvanized First Amendment ideals into legal precedent. In his 1965 book The Negro and the First Amendment, legal scholar Harry Kalven foresaw the unique changes in First Amendment law that would grow out of the civil rights movement.

In fact, Kalven wrote, "We may come to see the Negro as winning back for us the freedoms the Communists seemed to have lost for us," a reference to civil liberties sacrificed during the anticommunist "red scare" era of the 1950s and early '60s.

First Amendment expert Robert O'Neil, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said many areas of First Amendment law were shaped by the civil rights movement.

"The sources of pressure created by the civil rights movement coincided at a time when the courts were receptive to the expansion of First Amendment principles," O'Neil said.

The cases that grew out of civil rights-era activism clearly show the force of the First Amendment in persuading the Supreme Court to issue rulings in favor of the demonstrators. "Nearly all the cases involving the civil rights movement were decided on First Amendment grounds," Greenberg said.

Margaret Blanchard, the William Rand Kenan journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, said that "the civil rights protesters broke new ground in organizing together for certain causes, using various kinds of symbolic expression and emphasizing the right to march."

Blanchard said numerous court decisions across the country sided with civil rights protesters who challenged parade ordinances. The ordinances vested too much power in city officials who could - and sometimes would - deny permits because they disliked the group or its cause.

The Supreme Court issued several rulings protecting civil rights advocates from criminal charges for engaging in First Amendment-protected activity. In the 1963 decision Edwards v. South Carolina, the high court struck down the breach-of-the-peace convictions of 187 African-American students who marched to the South Carolina Statehouse carrying signs with messages such as "Down with Segregation."

Saying the "circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form," the Court ruled that the government could not criminalize "the peaceful expression of unpopular views."

In its 1961 decision Garner v. Louisiana, the court overturned the disturbing-the-peace convictions of five African-Americans who engaged in sit-ins at an all-white cafй counter in Baton Rouge. In his concurring opinion, Justice John Harlan wrote that a sit-in demonstration "is as much a part of the free trade of ideas as is verbal expression."

Harlan wrote that a sit-in was entitled to the same level of First Amendment protection as "displaying a red flag as a symbol of opposition to organized government," a form of expression that the Supreme Court protected in the 1931 case Stromberg v. People of California.

Numerous other First Amendment-related Supreme Court decisions stemmed from events during the civil rights movement. Among these cases O'Neil lists NAACP v. Alabama (1958), which protected the free-association rights of NAACP members from official harassment, and NAACP v. Button (1963),which ensured access to courts and protected the associational freedoms of public-interest groups.

In NAACP v. Alabama, state officials demanded the names and addresses of all the members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Alabama. But the Supreme Court held that compelling the disclosure of membership lists would violate members' First Amendment free-association rights.

The high court wrote that "privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs."

UNC's Blanchard said, "NAACP v. Alabama established the right of people to join together to advocate causes even in hostile environments."

Five years later, in NAACP v. Button, the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP had the right to refer individuals who wanted to sue in public school desegregation cases to lawyers and to pay their litigation expenses. (This case also relates to the First Amendment freedom of petition, and is covered in that section.)

A Virginia law had forbidden any organization from compensating an attorney in a case in which it had no direct monetary interest, and also had forbidden organizations from intervening between lawyer and client. State officials charged the NAACP with violating these rules by encouraging people to become plaintiffs in desegregation cases, referring them to private attorneys and then paying their litigation expenses.

However, the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP's actions were "modes of expression and association protected by the First Amendment."

Greenberg called Button "extraordinarily important" because it represented the beginning of the public-interest law firm.

It is also worth noting, though it did not involve freedom of assembly, that another landmark First Amendment-related case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, grew out of the civil rights movement. That 1964 case bolstering press freedom is discussed in the press section.

Each of these cases demonstrates the role that the First Amendment played in the civil rights movement and likewise shows the important role that the civil rights movement played in the development of First Amendment freedoms.

"It is likely that the same First Amendment doctrines would not have developed at the same rate and with the same force or conviction were it not for the civil rights movement," O'Neil said.

The Supreme Court in these various rulings strengthened people's right to assemble peaceably - as well as to speak out and petition government - in protest against injustices.

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