The Cost of Free Speech – City Ordinances and Permit Fees

The Cost of Free Speech – City Ordinances and Permit Fees

April 23, 2010 Discrimination Headline 0

Pay Up or Shut Up - The Cost of Free SpeechIn 2007, the International Woman’s Day March planned to hit the streets of San Antonio to support women around the globe.  However, San Antonio parade ordinances require not only permitting, but a fee for the services by the police department for traffic control and other safety matters.

On its face this sounds like a very reasonable ordinance; if you want the city to block streets and provide public safety, then you should have to reimburse the city for the costs, but in San Antonio (and other jurisdictions), not all events are charged equally.

The International Woman’s Day March Planning Committee and the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition had enough of this inequality after falling victim to the associated fees and filed suit against the city for violation of their first amendment rights.  The lower court, overseen by Judge Xavier Rodriguez, issued an injunction against the city preventing enforcement of the policy.  In 2008, the city issued a new ordinance (that would not be subject to the injunction against the original ordinance) and continued collecting fees for parades (City of San Antonio Ordinance No. 2008-03-13-0201).

The new ordinance declared that the city would not charge the first $3,000.00 for “First Amendment Activity;” however, estimates from the city indicate that the charges could be from $4,000.00 – $30,000.00 for political and expressive marches (less the $3,000.00 waiver).  While these costs are extreme and deter many from planning such events, the inequality doesn’t stop there.

Under the 2008 Ordinance, three marches deemed as having “political appeal” have the fees associated with traffic control waived: The Diez y Seis Parade, the Martin Luther King March and the Veteran’s Day Parade.  Further, in 2008, the City Council of San Antonio determined numerous other marches would have the fees waived, including: the Cesar Chavez March, the 60+ Mardi Gras Parade, Fiesta Flambeau Parade, the Battle of the Roses Parade, the King William Parade, the San Antonio Marathon, and the Pilgrimage to the Alamo.

In other words, if the city endorses the speech you wish to promote, you are not charged these excessive fees; however, if the city feels the speech is not worthy of their approval, the charges can be extraordinary.

In March, 2009, Judge Fred Biery dissolved the injunction and dismissed the Plaintiffs’ case against the city on summary judgment.  The Plaintiffs appealed, which brings us to today.  The case is scheduled for oral arguments before the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans on April 27th.

If you haven’t noticed, this case has broad and sweeping impact on the current LGBT rights movement, particularly the grassroots groups that certainly could not afford a $50,000.00 bill from the city for traffic control and whose message would not likely be endorsed by the city.  In their Second Amended Petition, Plaintiffs acknowledge this, stating:

“The paradigm public forum for free speech and associative expression in San Antonio is the public streets and sidewalks. Political and expressive marches in the public streets have long been a way for groups, particularly groups that lack governmental or institutional power and resources, to express their views and to inform other members of the public about issues of importance to our communities. To make access to public street marches available only to those with political influence or financial wealth is to profoundly limit freedom of speech and the quality of public debate in San Antonio.”

A copy of Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Petition is available here.

NOTE: The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center of San Antonio is planning a bus trip to New Orleans to take concerned members of the community to the oral arguments.  No one is being denied a ride on the bus regardless of whether or not they can afford the charges.  Therefore, Esperanza can use our help.  Please consider making a donation to assist them in paying for the trip.  You may do so at this link.

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