PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and two of its police officers to challenge police department practices that discourage and intimidate political protesters.

On April 1, 2005, Marianne Bessey, an animal rights activist from Lansdowne, PA, was arrested while standing in a public street outside the Mann Music Center 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 52nd Street, where most of the arriving circus patrons would not 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. Over one year later, the department has not responded.

The complaint filed Friday charges that the Philadelphia Police Department knowingly fails to train its police officers about the rights of people who engage in public protest and instead allows its officers to retaliate against and discourage peaceful protestors from exercising their First Amendment rights.

"It is ironic that in Philadelphia, where the First Amendment was created, the City tries to silence people who exercise their right to speak," said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The Supreme Court has said that freedom of thought and speech is 'the indispensable condition of every other form of freedom'. Our police department should train its officers to protect our freedoms, not intimidate those who exercise them."

The suit, Bessey v. City of Philadelphia, et al, was filed Friday in the federal District Court. A copy of the complaint is available here.