Yesterday, Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler, Generations for Life’s John Jansen, myself and 150 other Chicagoans attended a meeting of the Chicago Committee on Special Events to defend free speech and public protest.
With the G8 and Nato summits coming concurrently to Chicago this spring, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has taken the opportunity to ratchet up the city’s laws governing public protest.
The legislation, which was originally proposed as a temporary measure for the summits but has since become permanent, drastically increased fines and required a permit for any gathering of people in public space. The ordinance defines a “Public Assembly”, which requires a permit, as:
. . . a company of persons which is reasonably anticipated to obstruct the normal flow of traffic upon the public way and that is collected together in one place, or (ii) 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, but which does not meet the definition of parade set forth in this subsection.
Since there is no qualification on what constitutes a “obstructing the normal flow of pedestrian traffic”, police could define any action they don’t like taking place on a sidewalk as a “Public Assembly” and shut it down for lack of a permit.
The committee discussed a few aspects of the bill but none that concerned the gathered activist community. Rather they focused on changes dealing with parades, which were of little concern to us.
After the discussion they opened the floor to public comment but limited each person to two minutes each. Ironically, they cut off the microphone at the end of each person’s time limit, making a mockery of the free speech we were there to defend.
Dozens gave testimony about their concerns about the bill including myself and Eric. Some testified that things were working fine under the current laws, 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 that Chicago has a history of doing just that.
In the end, the measure passed out of committee with a vote of 7-3 and passed the full City Council this morning. The League will continue to fight this ordinance, especially if it is enforced in such a way as to dampen our, and our opposition’s, right to free speech.