Action Alert:

ACLU of Massachusetts challenges ‘speech and assembly tax’ in Cambridge

BOSTON – The ACLU of Massachusetts today filed a lawsuit challenging the City of Cambridge’s policy of charging event organizers for public safety services as a condition for granting permits for rallies and demonstrations in Cambridge parks.

Filed on behalf of Massachusetts Peace Action and Massachusetts Peace Action Education Fund, two organizations that – as part of the January Coalition – helped plan the 2018 Women’s March event on the Cambridge Common, the lawsuit calls for an end to a practice that deters political participation.

“The right to join with neighbors in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and at the core of the First Amendment,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “At a time when the federal government is inciting division and seeking to chill free speech, the voices of these organizers and participants should be encouraged and applauded, not taxed.” 

Despite successfully completing the permitting process and paying permit application fees in advance of the January 2018 event, members of the January Coalition were told less than two weeks before the event that they could be additionally charged for public safety needs, including police coverage and emergency medical services. That discussion happened  after the organizers mentioned to police that there could be counter-protesters at the event.

The Boston/Cambridge Women’s March went forward on January 20, 2018, and was peaceful. Shortly after the event, organizers received bills totaling thousands of dollars for police details and emergency medical technician services and were told that more – including invoices for police details from neighboring cities and towns – would be forthcoming.

“These bills are a burden on our advocacy. Massachusetts Peace Action is a member-funded organization dedicated to a just and peaceful US foreign policy. Our limited funds are used to advocate for peace and diplomacy, and our work rests firmly on The First Amendment,” said Michelle Cunha, Assistant Director of Massachusetts Peace Action, and a Cambridge Women’s March organizer. “To erode the foundation of our work erodes the foundation of our country. This lawsuit will help clarify everyone’s rights to free speech and assembly.”

“There should never be a tax on speech and assembly,” said Ruth Bourquin, senior attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The event organizers and ACLU alike are concerned about the impact of the City’s practices on the exercise of free speech of all who seek permits for the Cambridge Common and other public parks.”

According to the complaint, charges by a local government for basic public safety services at “expressive events and assemblies” in public parks is inconsistent with the First Amendment and the free speech and assembly provisions of the Massachusetts’ Constitution. The charges unlawfully shift to those exercising constitutional rights the burden of paying for public protection. For that reason, according to the complaint, they are an unlawful “tax”.

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