On Tuesday, January 17, the Leauge’s Eric Scheidler, John Jansen and I found ourselves in the Chicago City Council Chambers surrounded by a hundred of our fiercest enemies—”Occupy” protesters, socialists, gay rights activists and radical feminists. But for once we weren’t opposing each other. Rather, we were all there to defend our rights to free speech and public protest from a pernicious new ordinance being considered by the Committee on Special Events.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was attempting to tighten the city’s laws governing public protest in anticipation of the G8 and NATO summits, both scheduled to take place in Chicago during the same week in May (though the G8 summit was later moved to Camp David by President Obama), and both expected to inspire major protests by the radical groups surrounding Eric, John and me.
The League’s work depends on robust public protest rights, since many people would rather not be confronted with the abortion issue in the public square. We knew we had to oppose Emanuel’s new protest restrictions, even if they were aimed at a different group of protesters.
Vague Definition of “Public Assembly”
The legislation was originally proposed as a temporary measure for the two planned summits, but then Emmanuel decided to try to make the tighter restrictions permanent. The proposed ordinance would drastically increase fines and require a permit for any gathering of people in public space.
We at the League have no problem with lawful and reasonable requirement for permits, but this ordinance was a serious overreach. For example, the new ordinance would included under the definitions of a “Public Assembly” requiring a permit “any organized march or procession of persons upon any public sidewalk that is reasonably anticipated to obstruct the normal flow of pedestrian traffic on the public way.”
Keeping the sidewalks available for pedestrians is a reasonable goal, but what’s missing is any clear definition of what constitutes “obstructing the normal flow of pedestrian traffic.” Is it “obstructing” to stand next to the curb with a sign that people might have to step around with minimal inconvenience?
With that kind of ambiguity, police could easily decide that any public action they didn’t like constitutes a “Public Assembly” and shut it down for lack of a permit, violating the First Amendment.
Eric Turns Boos into Teaching Moment
During their discussion of the proposed ordinance, the Committee seemed uninterested in the concerns that had driven so many activists to gather in the Council Chambers. They seemed far more concerned with the impact the ordinance might have on neighborhood parades—perhaps because these are important political events for elected officials like themselves.
Finally, they opened the floor to public comment, but limited each person to two minutes each. A Council official would cut off the microphone at the end of each person’s time limit, oblivious to the irony of silencing citizens who are trying to defend their right to freedom of speech.
I and dozens of others addressed the council with concerns about the bill. Some testified that things were working fine under the current laws, while others said increased fines would make protest a luxury only the rich could afford. All agreed that the proposed ordinances had disastrous potential to be abused, and many noted that Chicago has an ugly history of doing just that.
When Eric reached the mic, he introduced himself as the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, and one or two people booed. Eric seized this opportunity to tell the council that he welcomes those “boos,” because he believes in everyone’s right to free speech, whether or not he agrees with them. At this the audience broke into applause, and several people approached Eric afterwards to thank him for his comments.
Ordinance Passes, League Vows Vigilance
Despite hours of public testimony opposing the new ordinance, coming from both sides of the political spectrum, it passed the Committee on a vote of 7-3, and shortly thereafter it easily passed in the full City Council. Activists on the left are already reporting that the new language is being used to unfairly restrict their protest rights, but so far the pro-life movement has not seen an impact.
The League’s first bout of street activism under the new ordinance will come in July, when we hit the streets of downtown Chicago during our annual Face the Truth Tour. We expect the same respectful treatment we usually receive from the Chicago Police. But if this new law becomes a tool to limit our rights, the League will be there to fight it in court, just as we were there to fight it at the City Council in January.