The ACLU’s more than two-year legal battle to overhaul the City of Pittsburgh’s permit process for parades and demonstrations is coming to an end. On January 17th, 2006, a federal judge lifted an injunction entered in February 2004 that will allow the City to implement the new system. Under the new ordinance and regulations, no group who desires to use Pittsburgh’s parks, streets and sidewalks for protest activities can be denied a permit because they cannot afford to pay security or other fees.
The lawsuit was filed in October 2003 on behalf of three non-profit organizations with a history of problems trying to obtain permits from the City to hold protests in parks and on streets and sidewalks. The three groups, the Thomas Merton Center, the Greater Pittsburgh Branch of the NAACP, and People Against Police Violence, claimed that the City’s ordinance gave officials too much discretion to deny permits and to assess prohibitive fees.
On October 31, 2003, U. S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti issued an injunction against the City, prohibiting them from charging security fees to non-profit groups wanting to protest and march in the City’s streets. The Judge ruled preliminarily that the City’s parade and demonstration ordinance was probably unconstitutional. The court refused the City’s request in December 2003 to resume charging protesters.
Finally, after an all-day hearing in February 2004, the Judge issued an order prohibiting the City from charging security fees, charging excessive application fees, requiring long advance-application times, and requiring insurance that most groups either couldn’t obtain or afford.
Subsequently, City Council adopted a new ordinance and the Mayor’s office drafted new implementing regulations and a permit-application form. After more than a year of negotiations and court proceedings, the parties finally agreed that the new system can, with one exception, go into effect. The one exception is a new requirement that protests attracting over 5000 people must secure insurance. The ACLU argues that this requirement cannot be met by many groups and is, therefore, unconstitutional. The parties will attempt to resolve this dispute before the court is asked to make a decision on it. Under the new ordinance, the City may assess security fees under an established scale, but any group that cannot afford those fees may obtain a waiver. The ordinance also streamlines the application process.