The Right to Distribute Leaflets in Front of Schools Is Upheld
Susan Notes: It's always good news to see that the First Amendment, though ailing, is not dead yet.
A group seeking to constrain military recruiters at schools has settled a lawsuit against the city claiming that the Police Department was illegally barring it from giving out information on public sidewalks in front of schools, an activity protected by the First Amendment.
Under the settlement, reached earlier this month in Federal District Court in Manhattan, and dated March 16, the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the group, the Ya-Ya Network, and lawyers for the city agreed that the department would instruct police officers that a state law against loitering near schools and colleges "does not apply to First Amendment activity."
The lawyer who brought the suit, Christopher Dunn, said yesterday that the department had made a practice of prohibiting First Amendment activity near schools, a charge that Paul J. Browne, the department's deputy commissioner for public information, strongly denied.
"It's not our practice to inhibit First Amendment rights," Mr. Browne said. "We've spent a great deal of time facilitating it in New York, and to try to accommodate some of these shifting and sometimes conflicting demands."
Mr. Dunn had argued that prohibiting people from handing out leaflets on a public sidewalk near a school was unconstitutional. He said the case had broad implications for protest groups in the city, many of which had been prevented from reaching students.
"It was an enormous amount of territory that was off limits," he said.
There are about 1,300 public schools in New York City alone. The First Amendment exception to the loitering law also applies to public sidewalks near private schools and universities.
In the suit, filed in 2003, the Ya-Ya Network said its members had been chased off the public areas in front of several schools by school officials and, in one case, a police officer, while trying to distribute information about students' rights to withhold personal data that schools give to military recruiters. The suit also cited the arrests of two students who were handing out AIDS literature near a high school in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
"What we'd been hearing from students was, 'Oh no, we're not allowed to talk to people outside of schools,' " said Amy Wagner, executive director of the Ya-Ya Network, "that they'd set up a red zone and we've been told we were not allowed."
The summonses against the two students were dismissed, Mr. Dunn said, and the civil liberties group began months of discussions with the city about the policy. In October 2003, the agency filed suit.
The Police Department issued a one-page directive to all precincts on March 21 instructing police officers not to enforce the loitering law against First Amendment activity, including "the holding of signs, placards and leaflets, chanting and singing."
However, Mr. Browne said, the department reserved the right to take action if protesters were blocking entrances to schools or intimidating students and teachers.
The city lawyer on the case, Dara Weiss, said the settlement "clarified that people can participate in legitimate expressive activities near school grounds provided that they are not engaging in any unlawful activity."
Ms. Wagner welcomed the settlement.
"Schools are meant to be hotbeds of discussion of current issues and issues that impact young people," she said. "If the public sidewalks are not a public venue, then what is?"
New York Times
INDEX OF YAHOO, GOOD NEWS!