Protesters planning a parade for the opening day of the Republican National Convention have been rebuffed by a federal court judge in their efforts to overturn the route authorized by the City of St. Paul. U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen ruled, in an opinion issued this morning, that the city’s parade policies do not unconstitutionally curtail the free-speech rights of the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War. (A PDF file of the decision is attached.)
“Compared to the access afforded marchers to the sites of the recent national conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties, the Coalition appears to have unprecedented access to the convention site,” Ericksen wrote in her opinion.
Protesters initially sought a parade route that would have allowed them to proceed from the Capitol down John Ireland Boulevard, across Kellogg Boulevard and eventually encircle the Xcel Energy Center, where the convention will be taking place. But the St. Paul Police Department maintained that such a route was impractical, citing security and traffic concerns. Instead the police issued a permit that allows marchers to proceed from the Capitol down Cedar Avenue, cut across downtown on Seventh Street and circle back at a triangle of streets across from the Xcel center.
Judge Ericksen ruled that the permitted route will allow protesters sufficient access to both convention delegates and media, noting that it will proceed within 84 feet of the convention site and pass by two of three areas set aside for reporters. She also ruled that St. Paul acted reasonably in addressing security concerns.
“Threats to the convention that the Secret Service must consider include terrorist attacks, lone gunmen, fire, chemical or biological attacks, detonation of explosive devices, and suicide bombers,” she wrote. “In addition, many groups have endorsed a call to shut down the RNC by blockading the convention site, immobilizing delegates’ transportation, and blocking bridges that connect St. Paul and Minneapolis.”
St. Paul City Attorney John Choi said the ruling validates the city’s approach to RNC demonstrations. “It for the most part rejects every argument that the plaintiffs make and it really does confirm in a lot of ways that the city has done everything consistent with the Constitution,” he says.
But attorneys representing the Coalition argue that the ruling is a blow to free-speech rights. “I think this decision really does weaken the First Amendment,” says Teresa Nelson, an attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It seems to suggest that all the government needs to do is say we have security concerns and that’s going to be enough to pick any route they want.”
Meredith Aby, one of the principal organizers of the planned march, also blames St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s administration for failing to accommodate the protesters. “He’s chosen to align himself with the party of war,” she says. “He’s got hopes for higher political office and the people of Minnesota are not going to forget.”
The Coalition’s supporters also expressed disappointment that Judge Ericksen failed to issue a directive related to the timing of the march. Parade planners initially sought to hold it from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., but the police department responded by confining the march to a two-hire time frame. The city has since indicated that it’s willing to engage in further negotiations on the issue, but it remains a point of contention. Judge Ericksen suggests in her opinion that an agreement has been reached that would allow the parade to begin at 11 a.m. and wrap up by 4 p.m., but march organizers say no such deal is in place. “We would have liked to see something more solid in her order that would have really made that a mandate, that the time-line be changed,” says Nelson.
Choi says the city is still open to negotiations. “Just because we won at this stage certainly isn’t going to preclude the city from still living up to its commitment to work with the public and be accommodating,” he says.
The plaintiffs have not yet determined whether to appeal the ruling or take other legal action. “We haven’t formally consulted with our clients so we haven’t made a recommendation about what they’re next steps should be,” says Nelson. “We hope to do that in the next day.”