Protester Site Spurs Litigation

Posted July 3, 2008 at 4:16pm

More than a dozen groups are up in arms over a city-designed “demonstration zone” at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, claiming the zone violates protesters’ First Amendment rights.

The outlined area is a slice of the parking lot of the Pepsi Center, where the convention will be held in late August. But the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, say the space is too small and too far away from arriving delegates.

Surrounded by media tents and wire mesh fencing, the area is almost three football fields away from the Pepsi Center, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU’s Colorado chapter. And that, he said, isn’t within the “sight and sound” requirements that the city has to abide by when designing such a space for protesters.

“The city hasn’t fulfilled its commitment,” he said.

The ACLU and other groups, including CODEPINK, are bringing the issue to court. They filed their first lawsuit back in May, asking a judge to require the city to release its plans for the protesters’ parade route and rule on permit applications that protesters have already filed. The city released the parade route June 12, ending it a few blocks from the Pepsi Center — another aspect that displeases the groups and is part of their litigation.

The goal is to avoid a repeat of the demonstration zone at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Officials set up a sort of “pen” for protesters underneath a railroad track, surrounded by fencing and topped with razor wire.

A judge ruled that the pen violated the First Amendment, but that it was too late to make any changes.

Silverstein said he was confident that time crunch wouldn’t happen this year. The court has set aside an entire day for the trial, on July 29, leaving nearly four weeks for any potential changes or appeals.

David Fine, a Denver city attorney, said the city was “confident that persons in the demonstration zone will be within sight and sound” of the Pepsi Center. But he wouldn’t go into detail about how far away the area was from the arena or whether sidewalks directly in front of the arena would be available to the public.

And while the city says the area is 50,000 square feet, Silverstein claims it’s only 27,000. That would only accommodate about 4,000 people, he said — not near the expected tens of thousands of protesters.

Fine emphasized that the plans are the best the city can offer considering the security and logistical needs. Not only does the Secret Service have security priorities, he said, but city officials have to ensure that public transportation and traffic isn’t impeded.

“There are very difficult logistical and resource concerns, especially dealing with the light rail, people coming out of work and very legitimate security concerns,” he said.

Protesters also can demonstrate on any sidewalk or public space in the city, he said. He also pointed out that protesters will be able to use the Auraria Campus, which is across the street from the Pepsi Center and houses two colleges and a university.

But Silverstein questioned the necessity of stopping the parade route blocks from the center, where delegates are unlikely to see the floats and signs.

“If that’s the terminus, then it’s not within sight and sound of the convention,” he said.

At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., groups will be able to march right next to the Xcel Energy Center. But that convention center is in a more wide-open space, while Denver’s Pepsi Center is right in the middle of downtown. And groups in St. Paul are still litigating over their parade permit — they say the permit’s timing misses the delegates’ arrival.