The city of Philadelphia was hit with a lawsuit Thursday alleging that its refusal to issue a protest permit to a social-justice organization during the Democratic National Convention restricts the group from exercising its constitutional freedom of speech.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania on behalf of Kensington-based Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC), accuses Philly of "content-based" censorship.
"It appears that the City favors block parties and other celebrations over protest, or that it favors commercial or prestigious speakers over those less powerful. Either rationale is content-based and prohibited by the First Amendment," the lawsuit alleges.
In May, Cheri Honkala, founder of PPERHC, applied for a permit to march from City Hall to FDR Park at 3 p.m. on July 25, the convention's opening day. But the city denied the permit based on an unwritten ban on marches in Center City streets from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. seemingly so as to not interfere with rush-hour traffic.
"We are filing the lawsuit today because the last thing that poor people have is their voice, and we can't allow our voice to be taken away," Honkala said.
The city's permit policy for demonstrations states that among the grounds for application refusal is if "the demonstration will substantially or unnecessarily interfere with traffic in the area contiguous to the activity, and will unreasonably disrupt movement or circulation of vehicular or pedestrian traffic," though it does not indicate specific times.
But the lawsuit points out that the city has "routinely authorize[d] street closures on Center City streets during this time on weekdays, as evidenced by a list on the city’s own events webpage."
"This spring, the city has closed Center City streets during so-called rush hour for victory parades, block parties, and restaurant events," the lawsuit claims. "The city also routinely allows protests in Center City during supposed “rush” hours at the discretion of the police. The refusal to grant a permit, however, leaves protesters to take their chances on whether the police will stop or allow their protest."
Additionally, the PPEHRC and thousands of city residents peacefully marched the same route during the Republican National Convention in 2000, which Honkala led.