PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today announced a settlement with the City of Philadelphia in a case involving a Lansdowne woman who was arrested for distributing literature on a public sidewalk in Fairmount Park. The settlement includes additional training for the Philadelphia Police Department's Civil Affairs Division on the right to protest.
"We are delighted that the city chose to work with us to strengthen the training for the officers who most often encounter free speech issues," said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
As part of the settlement, the Philadelphia Police Department's Civil Affairs Division, which has primary enforcement responsibilities at any public assembly, demonstration or labor dispute, will provide its officers with additional free speech and First Amendment training to ensure that:
- Civil Affairs officers will not interfere with the right of a protester or group of protesters to stand anywhere the protester or protesters choose to stand on a public sidewalk or public right-of-way, regardless of who owns or has permission to use that right-of-way, so long as they do not cause danger or actual obstruction of vehicular or pedestrian travel.
- Civil Affairs officers will not tell protesters that they must stop protesting when the Civil Affairs officer plans or wants to leave the location.
- Civil Affairs officers do not react negatively toward activists who are not friendly or willing to engage in conversation and refrain from expressing either agreement or disagreement with the subject of the protest while on assignment.
- Civil Affairs officers will seek legal guidance from a supervisor and, if appropriate, from Department legal counsel if there is a question about where protesters may stand.
On April 1, 2005, Marianne Bessey, an animal rights activist, was arrested while standing in a public sidewalk outside the Mann Music Center in Fairmount Park before a circus performance. Bessey was holding a sign and handing out literature about the circus's treatment of animals when two Philadelphia police officers demanded that she move to a nearby street, where fewer of the arriving circus patrons would see her.
When Bessey refused, asking why she could not protest on public property, she was handcuffed, placed in a police van, and taken to a police station. Bessey was held in a cell for nearly three hours before being released with a citation for disorderly conduct. She was later cleared of all charges.
Once her record was cleared, Bessey filed a complaint with the Internal Affairs Division of the Philadelphia Police Department, stating that she was illegally arrested because of her political views and activities and demanding an investigation. It was almost two years before the Internal Affairs Division responded, and it rejected all of Bessey's complaints.
In the complaint, filed in April 2007, Bessey and the ACLU alleged that the Philadelphia Police Department knowingly failed to train its police officers about the rights of people who engage in public protest and instead allowed its officers to interfere with and discourage peaceful protestors.
"In my experience, it's clear that most Philadelphia police officers do not understand free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. I am glad that we were able to get more training for the officers and a commitment from the city that some of the problems I have encountered will cease," stated Ms. Bessey. "That's the only reason I brought suit - to improve the way protesters are treated by the Philadelphia police."
More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint and the settlement agreement, can be found here: www.aclupa.org/bessey