New York Times
Jul 21, 2006. pg. B.1
New York, N.Y.: One of New York’s greater glories is its talent for finding molehills and turning them into mountains. It led this week to a proposed set of police regulations with civil liberties implications.
In case you were distracted by little things like the Middle East crisis and the stem-cell debate, the Police Department announced new rules controlling marches and parades, be they on foot or on wheels. The rules won’t become final until after a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 23 (when many New Yorkers are certain to be away). But it sounds as if minds at police headquarters are made up.
Here’s the new drill:
Bicyclists traveling in groups of 20 or more must first get a parade permit from the police. The same goes for groups of 35 or more people walking together on sidewalks. For that matter, a group of merely two people — that’s right, two people — will be defined as a parade if they walk or cycle ”in a manner that does not comply with all applicable traffic laws, rules and regulations.”
Be honest. Have you never, while strolling or biking with a companion, crossed the street against a red light? It would seem that the two of you will now, technically speaking, qualify as a parade. And since you probably will not have first asked the police for a parade permit, it appears that you will — again technically — be breaking two laws.
What happened here is that a molehill became a mountain.
A group bicycle ride known as Critical Mass is held in Manhattan on the last Friday of every month. This event, encouraged by an environmental group called Time’s Up, went on for years with no one paying much attention. Then the Republicans came to town in 2004. The bike ride on the eve of their convention was huge. Things got unruly, and 264 people were arrested.
After that, the atmosphere between the police and Time’s Up became poisonous, with each side accusing the other of bad faith. The police harass them and provoke clashes, the riders say. The riders block traffic and look for trouble, the police say. Each side probably has a point.
Five months ago, a State Supreme Court justice, Michael D. Stallman, rejected the Police Department’s attempts to rein in Critical Mass with rules that he called ill-defined. Almost plaintively, Justice Stallman urged both sides to exercise ”patience, mutual respect and restraint,” and in effect return that mountain to a molehill.
Now we have the new regulations — tailored, the police say, to the judge’s complaint about vagueness. They do not, however, bring the molehill back.
Civil libertarians call the revisions a frontal assault on free speech. ”Overkill,” the civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel said yesterday. Protesters, Mr. Siegel said, ”will now need government permission to exercise their First Amendment rights.” Similar objections came from the New York Civil Liberties Union.
QUESTIONS are unavoidable.
What if 35 people, outraged by events in the Middle East, decide suddenly to march on the sidewalk to the United Nations? This is hardly an unimaginable event. The new regulations, strictly read, say they must first get a parade permit.
”Let us remember that part of the right to protest is the right to spontaneously protest,” said City Councilman Alan Jay Gerson of Manhattan. Besides, Mr. Gerson said, it should be up to the Council, not the police, to change rules governing free speech. Indeed, the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said in a statement that ”these proposals raise significant questions that we are examining carefully.”
Practical considerations also come to mind. Will 20 people on a routine bike tour have to get a parade permit? How about 35 kids walking as a group on a class trip? Or a funeral procession?
Paul J. Browne, a Police Department spokesman, dismissed all this as ”grasping at unrealistic scenarios.” Still, some will wonder if the rules are to be uniformly enforced or applied mainly to groups deemed mettlesome, like Time’s Up. The question is part of a broader issue that New Yorkers have faced since 9/11: How do we balance the demands of security and order with our tradition of openness and free expression?
One whimsical answer was offered yesterday by Steve Stollman, a biking advocate who wore a button designed for anyone planning to walk or ride in a group. The button had an arrow pointing in opposite directions. ”Please don’t arrest me,” it said. ”I’m not with him.’