How Far Can Cities Go in Controlling Protests? ; Case before High Court Argues Whether Free-Speech Rights Extend to Permit Process

Article excerpt

The Windy City Hemp Development Board makes no secret of its public-policy positions. Members believe marijuana should be legalized. They also believe they have a right to advocate their position by holding protest rallies in public parks.

But in March 1997, the Chicago Park District turned down the group's application for a rally permit.

Members responded with a lawsuit, claiming that the park-permit process in Chicago was being used as a form of censorship in violation of the First Amendment.

The city says the permit denial had nothing to do with the group's pro-marijuana message, but was based on permit violations at an earlier rally.

The resulting case, Thomas v. Chicago Park District, has touched off a debate over the free-speech implications of government efforts to regulate parks and streets.

Today, the debate arrives at the US Supreme Court, where the justices must decide whether denial of the rally permit was a valid exercise of a local licensing scheme designed to run a park smoothly - or whether the denial amounts to an effort by the government to muzzle the Hemp Development Board by preventing it from holding rallies in a city park.

Free-speech advocates are hoping the justices use the case to make clear that First Amendment protections extend to government- permit regulations. Similar decisions have been written by federal- appeals judges in cases in New York and Gainesville, Fla.

"Core political speech is the center of the First Amendment," says Wayne Giampietro, a Chicago lawyer representing plaintiff Caren Cronk Thomas and the Hemp Board. "It is certainly one of the most precious things that we have, and no government agency is going to be allowed to cut it back in even the slightest way."

Seattle violence still in mind

On the other side, city officials are watching the Chicago case to see to what extent they may regulate park and city street operations without running afoul of the Constitution. In addition, the case could help identify constitutionally permissible ways to control large and potentially violent demonstrations. Such protests marred the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 and prompted a massive police presence at a Washington, D.C., demonstration earlier this year.

"Like almost any big city or the national parks, the Chicago Park District has a system of regulations to control the multiple uses that people want to make of the parks," says Steven Weiss, a lawyer for the Chicago Park District. "The denial of the permit has nothing to do with the message that was being advocated."

Mr. Weiss says city officials were unaware of the Hemp Board's political message. He says that at the time of the denial, the group's application was signed simply "Ad Hoc Coalition."

How the justices will view the case is uncertain, legal analysts say, with no clear majority on any side of the issue. …