The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today called on members of the Chicago City Council to reject a series of proposed changes to ordinances that add unnecessary burdens to individuals and organizations seeking to speak out on a host of public policy matters. The ordinances were proposed by the Emanuel Administration late last year, and were first announced as temporary measures to cover the period of the G8 and NATO meetings, scheduled for May 2012 in the city.

After the first of the year, the Mayor confirmed that most of the provisions are permanent, creating even more concern about the addition of new barriers to free expression in Chicago beyond this year's events.

Rather than burdening speech, ACLU urges the City to address the real concerns of free speech and immediately develop final plans for expressive activities for the G8/NATO events.

The ACLU has spoken out publicly over the past several weeks in hopes of engaging the Emanuel Administration in a discussion designed to enhance freedom of expression during the May events in Chicago.  On January 11, 2012, the ACLU wrote to Mayor Emanuel and Police Superintendent McCarthy on behalf of the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee urging the City to immediately convene a meeting “with representatives of our organizations as well other groups that intend to exercise their rights to freedom of expression during the summit, to discuss the formulation of plans which the city will utilize in facilitating and regulating free speech in our city” during these meetings.  Such meetings, according to the ACLU, will make clear to everyone – at this early date – the places and ways that free expression will be permitted during these critical events.  In particular, ACLU and AFSC stressed the need to know how close demonstrators will be allowed near the McCormick Convention Center - the site of the Summit - and whether there will be any limitations or bans on speech in any other parts of the City.

While the City has recently said it will issue permits approving applications for a rally and parade during the Summit, it has conditioned the permits on subsequent approval by the federal Secret Service. The City also has said that the Secret Service will not release its plans until two to four weeks before the Summit. That is too late, for it does not afford enough time to negotiate with the City or the federal government or to adequately prepare a court challenge to any unreasonable constraints.

The need for timeliness is critical.  In 1996, for example, when some demonstrators challenged plans for the Democratic National Convention, the City waited so long to release a final plan that the City did not have time to appeal a federal trial court decision in favor of the protestors. A federal court in Denver in 2008 urged the City and federal officials release their final plans for that City’s national convention four months in advance, so that there was ample time for negotiations and, if necessary, litigation. The ACLU of Illinois is urging Chicago to release their plans now, including any restrictions imposed by the Secret Service.

All this is happening as the Administration attempts to change the rules for parades and demonstrations in Chicago.

"Now is not the time to add new complexities and new penalties to the already-convoluted City permit process for parades and demonstrations on matters of public policy," said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois.  "The City should be looking to meet with all the interested parties and find ways to protect free expression -- not build new barriers that discourage participation."

"The City Council should reject these proposed ordinances and encourage the Mayor and his team to being such negotiations immediately."

The ACLU of Illinois raised particular concerns today about proposals in the new ordinances that would:

  • Needless increases in fines for violations of minor parade and demonstration rules, as well as increases in fines for "resisting arrest." There is no evidence that the present level of fines has proved inadequate in deterring rule violations or wrongdoing.  Non-violent civil disobedience has not been treated as conduct deserving of serious penalties in our country, including passive resistance to arrest.
  • Permit the Mayor to expand Chicago's vast and unregulated surveillance camera network without any review or oversight by City Council. The camera system already has been noted as being the "most expansive” surveillance camera system in the United States.  The further expansion of the camera network and the lack of regulation limiting the use of the most intrusive aspects of the cameras (zooming, tracking, facial recognition, recording, dissemination) at a time when persons wish to dissent from government policy is chilling to free speech.
  • Requires the registration of every amplification device used by demonstrators and parade participants, including bullhorns and other amplification systems that long have been a staple at demonstrations and political parades in Chicago.  Such requirements create an unnecessary burden for smaller, ad hoc organizations that dissuade them from attempting to plan and stage events in the City.

After careful evaluation and analysis of the proposed ordinances, the ACLU of Illinois believes that while none of the proposals may be per se unconstitutional, the combination of these rules will deter some groups (especially smaller organizations) from contributing to the public discourse -- a result that should not be tolerated in a world class City such as Chicago.