PHILADELPHIA - An animal rights group will be allowed to protest on sidewalks throughout Independence National Historical Park tomorrow after the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed an emergency motion to enforce a twenty-one year old court order requiring the National Park Service to permit protests on streets, sidewalks, and other areas open to the public in the Park. The group has previously been denied permission to protest under Park policies that restrict and even ban protests on public sidewalks in the Park - including the sidewalks outside the Liberty Bell and across from Independence Hall, places that symbolize freedom.
"The Supreme Court has said for generations that public sidewalks belong to the people, not the government," said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "We believe this is the first time since 9/11 that a group has been given permission to carry signs and hand out leaflets on the sidewalk across from the place where the First Amendment was conceived."
In September, Friends of Animals, a nonprofit group that opposes the use of horses to pull carriages as entertainment, attempted to hand out leaflets and talk to people on the sidewalks around Independence Mall where the carriages do their business. They were told by Park Service rangers that they were not allowed on any of the sidewalks where the carriages line up, only in the ironically named "First Amendment" area on Market Street, far from the carriages.
In October the ACLU intervened and the Park Service issued a permit for the activists to protest alongside the carriages, but the permit severely restricted the protestors' activities in most places. When Friends of Animals planned another protest for December 5, the ACLU wrote to the Park Service, requesting permission for the protestors to conduct their peaceful protests on any sidewalk in the park without the same restrictions, including the sidewalks where park regulations ban such activities.
With less than a week before the planned protest and no permission from the Park Service, the ACLU filed an emergency motion to enforce a twenty-one year old order from the Federal District Court that requires the Park Service to allow protests on areas open to the public in Independence Park. At a hearing on Tuesday, the Honorable John P. Fullam, the judge who had entered the original order, made a "preliminary finding" that the Park Service could not refuse permission to protest on Park sidewalks and directed the parties to use the Park's permit process to agree on the terms of that protest.
The Park Service granted most of the permit request on Wednesday, but said protestors would have to stay at out of a 20 foot Buffer zone at any pedestrian crossing, including street corners. The ACLU went back court Thursday afternoon to argue against that restriction. Judge Fullam entered an order requiring the Park Service to reduce the buffer to 12 feet and grant the Friends of Animals permit.
Friends of Animals will be demonstrating at Independence Mall on Saturday, December 5, from 2 to 5 p.m.
"Our work is not done," said Jon Feinberg, one of the attorneys for Friends of Animals, "because Park Service regulations still ban speech outside the Liberty Bell and across from Independence Hall. But this is a great victory for our clients and the First Amendment."
The Friends of Animals were represented by Roper and Marieke Tuthill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and cooperating lawyers Jonathan Fienberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg and Gloria Gilman of the National Lawyers Guild. More information about the case, including a copy of the motion to enforce and the judge's order, can be found here.