The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Columbus, claiming a a new municipal permit code for public rights-of-way violates the free speech rights of the Occupy Columbus movement and others.
Jim Letizia reports.
The ACLU says the city specifically targeted the political speech of groups whose message it does not like when it enacted the code in July of last year. And in a written statement, the ACLU says there is no mechanism for oversight. The code requires a different type of permit to place a non-commerical structure like a tent on a sidewalk, in a park, or on other public properties. The code change reduced from 30 days to 72 hours the amount of time a non-commercial structure can remain in a public right of way. City officials at the time said the change was meant to address numerous security and nuisance complaints about the Occupy Columbus tent set up in front of the Statehouse nine months earlier, thanks to a construction permit that was granted prior to the code change. The city had said uses other than construction were not anticipated when that code was created decades ago. The code change was sponsored by Council Member Eileen Paley, who said the additional permit fee was designed to cover administrative costs. Occupy Columbus spokesperson Robert Crane went to city hall to speak against the change.
"Does freedom of speech not last more than 72 hours? The permit fee of 30 dollars paid every 30 days covered all costs in checking on the group in front of the statehouse, making sure they kept in compliance with the law and the permit. If at a rate of 30 dollars for 30 days there was a zero additional cost to the city incurred, then why the need for such a drastic permit issue rate hike that would equate to 1 thousand dollars for 30 days from the 30 dollars for 30 days?"
Paley said the code change was reviewed by the City Attorney's office and was not designed to quell speech.
"This does not apply to speech, it applies to permanent structures, which have to do with safety and health issues."
Paley said protests are legal without a permit if someone is on the site to conduct such a protest. The ACLU says permit criteria and the fee structure are vague, and allow the city to arbitrarily choose which group is entitled to obtain a permit. The city has yet to comment on the lawsuit.