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Cleveland Sued For RNC Rules That Will Limit Speech, Impact Homeless

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sued the city of Cleveland and its mayor for “draconian regulations” adopted for the Republican National Convention. It asserts the regulations violate First Amendment rights and due process rights to “liberty, peace, and travel.”

Homeless people, according to the ACLU chapter [PDF], are “especially vulnerable” because the regulations prohibit the “possession of items that are essential” and “often carried by homeless people.” These items include but are not limited to string, rope, tape, coolers, or large backpacks.

The city of Cleveland refuses to issue permits for gatherings or parades in the “event zone” during the convention. Organizations like Organize Ohio, a community organization for progressive change, and Citizens for Trump, are having their First Amendment rights “trampled” because the city will not process permit applications that have been pending for months.

“Event Zone Permit Regulations” were issued by the city on May 25, 2016. The regulations established a 3.3-square mile zone that extends “far beyond the part of the city where the convention activities will take place.” The zone includes business districts and neighborhoods. There is a university, with dormitories and homes. All who live in this area will be impacted when the convention is held from July 18 to July 21.

“By designating many of their basic, everyday necessities as contraband, and drawing an unreasonably wide zone for enforcement,” the ACLU declares, “the city is subjecting its homeless residents to unnecessary encounters with the police, and interfering with their rights to liberty, privacy and movement.”

The lawsuit additionally claims the city has only one “designated parade route” on the “southern border of the zone.” For the few permit holders who have had permits processed, they are allowed to use the route for 50 minutes. There are only 18 slots for 50-minute parades available. These slots do not fall during times when the convention will be in session.

What route has been designated for assembly is in a part of the event zone where “participants are least likely to be seen or heard by convention goers and media.”

On top of that, “the absurd reach of the regulations over everyday items” applies to grocery stores within the zone, where shoppers will be prohibited from purchasing cans, canned goods, bottles, or aerosol cans.

Both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Philadelphia a week later, are designated as “National Special Security Events.” It gives the government broad authority to justify controlling and stifling dissent.

As activist Kris Hermes, who has worked with a number of law collectives, wrote in his book, “Crashing the Party,” “Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the ‘NSSE’ designation can give the state political cover while suppressing dissent.”

“Through state-imposed ‘rules of engagement,’ police have employed increasingly repressive tactics to mitigate mass political protest,” Hermes added.

This not only includes the use of raids on homes and spaces, where organizers are meeting, or the use of “less-lethal munitions” by riot cops on protesters, but also “screening checkpoints, at which all bags are subject to search; the imposition of ‘no speech zones’ and restricted march routes; and corralling or trapping protesters with the use of police lines, motorcycles, bicycles, and horses.”

The amount of spending on policing of dissent during “NSSEs,” like conventions, has skyrocketed since the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. During the WTO protests, $11.2 million was spent. At the Republican National Convention in 2008, $50 million was spent.

Hermes points out that the increased “security” raises the police presence so significantly that the patrols, and their high-tech weapons (like Long Range Acoustic Devices), become the story. Media clamor to cover the spectacle of the state using its power to crush dissenters.

“More than $50 million will be spent on security,” according to the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee.

Groups including Cleveland Jobs for Justice, Cleveland Environmental Action Network, Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, Cuyahoga County Black Lives Matter, Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor, Cleveland Homeless Congress, and Peace in the Hood are represented by Organize Ohio.

Members of these organizations plan to travel to Cleveland to participate in protests or gatherings during the convention, however, the city’s refusal to approve permits leaves many citizens wondering if they will be able to safely exercise their First Amendment rights.

Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless estimates about 90 to 110 homeless people will be affected by the regulations established for the “event zone.”

“The zone encompasses four of the five largest shelters in Cleveland, a daytime drop-in center, a primary healthcare site for the homeless, and approximately 10 established homeless encampments,” according to Davis. These sites are “nowhere near” the arena where the convention will be held.

The city of Cleveland wrote a letter to the ACLU of Ohio and defended its regulations, claiming it has imposed “very few restrictions on the exercise of First Amendment rights in the event zone.”

Unlike other hosted political conventions, Cleveland does not have a “no protest” zone around the Secure Zone at the Convention Complex. People are free to express their opinions outside the hard zone provided they do not block pedestrian or vehicular traffic on the streets and sidewalks. So long as people recognize this, they can express themselves through speech, signs, and other peaceful means. Because the City is not restricting access to the non-secure areas in the Event Zone or unreasonably limiting free speech within the Event Zone, the physical boundaries of the Event Zone do not present a constitutional issue.

In other words, the city believes it is allowed to impose restrictions on assembly and free speech because it maintains everyone will be able to be in the “non-secure areas” of the “Event Zone” and protest on sidewalks if they were unable to be approved for permits.

The ACLU of Ohio significantly disagrees. “Although the city insists otherwise, no genuine parade, assembly, rally, or speech can take place other than those few that the city may stingily parcel out in the limited opportunities delineated in its regulations—if and when it grants a permit.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."