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Judge backs Pittsburgh on protester camps, rally but not Point State Park event

| Friday, Sept. 18, 2009

Pittsburgh can't keep anti-war protesters out of Point State Park in the days before next week's Group of 20 economic summit, but a rally on the Seventh Street Bridge and overnight encampments in city parks are off-limits, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Six groups sued last week, seeking an injunction against the city to allow for more freedom where people can gather during the international meeting at David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster said the advance of modern technology gives activists other ways to speak publicly and, therefore, restricting their proximity to the summit won't violate the First Amendment right to protest.

"We think it was reasonable," city attorney Michael Kennedy said about the ruling. "We think it was legally based, and we think it upheld many of the issues that we were concerned about."

The judge ruled in favor of the city to ban the bridge rally and park encampments because leaders had raised security and public-safety concerns.

Lancaster ruled against the city, however, regarding protests at Point State Park. He noted the city's only argument for not allowing the group Code Pink to start setting up a tent city at 7 p.m. Sunday is because city workers might be dismantling structures set up for the Junior Great Race, scheduled for Sunday morning.

City officials already rearranged two events to make room for a G-20 festival, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and the United Steelworkers. Lawyers for the groups that sued the city argued that City Hall went out of its way to appease Ferlo and the USW, while stonewalling less politically connected groups, such as Code Pink.

Witold "Vic" Walczak, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the groups, said they are disappointed with the judge's rulings on the bridge rally and the park encampments but believe they still notched a significant victory.

"The good news here is that the most prime of Pittsburgh real estate — Point State Park — cannot be reserved for just the rich and powerful. That's the victory that we won today for Code Pink," he said.

The city agreed after the judge's ruling that another group, Three Rivers Climate Convergence, can set up an exhibit in part of the park, Walszak said.

The climate group asked to set up an exhibit of sustainable living, which would have had about 500 people camping in Schenley Park throughout next week. Lancaster said the group failed to convince him that the camping would convey any message. He added that based on the number of campers expected, the purpose of the encampment clearly would be to give protesters free lodging rather than free speech.

"The city does not have a constitutional duty to provide out-of-town protesters with low-cost accommodations," the judge said.

Lisa Fithian of Austin said the overnight camping was an integral part of the climate group's message.

"It breaks my heart because that's not what we're doing, and that's not what we asked for — and it really is a misrepresentation of what we're trying to do," she said.

Jonah McAllister-Erickson, of the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield, said the group is disappointed that Lancaster allowed the city to ban the Seventh Street Bridge rally.

The group plans to rally at noon Sept. 25, in Oakland. About 5,000 to 7,000 people afterward will march to the City-County Building on Grant Street, Downtown, for a second rally. The group then plans to continue the march to the vicinity of the convention center for a third rally.

The city offered the Thomas Merton Center a spot on the North Shore. The group, however, said the site is too small and unsafe because there would be no barrier to keep people from slipping into the Allegheny River. The city offered a parking lot within 100 yards of the summit, but the group said the location would add nearly a mile to the march.

McAllister-Erickson said the group will continue talking with city officials about a possible rallying place within the Golden Triangle.

Kennedy said the city will consider any location that doesn't pose a security or safety threat.

He said the city avoided further arguments on three permits included in the lawsuit by granting requests by the Bail Out the People Movement; the Pittsburgh Outdoor Artists; and G6 Billion Journey and Witness.

Additional Information:

Legal aid

Lawyers are offering legal advice for people who want to protest next week's Group of 20 economic summit.

The American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild are distributing 7,000 'Know Your Rights' wallet cards about legal protesting. The groups will send about 200 observers to monitor protests.

The ACLU set up a a legal hotline for people with questions: 412-562-5015. The ACLU and the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office have briefed police officers on First Amendment rights and what protesters legally can do.

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