A Victory for Free Speech

(Cambridge, Ma 012018) Hundreds assembled on the common for the second Women's March. January 20, 2018 Boston Herald Staff photo by Chris Christo
Thousands gathered on the Cambridge Common last January for the 2018 Women’s March.

This article appeared in Massachusetts Peace Action’s Fall 2018 newsletter

Should the right to assemble and to express political views be subject to “fees” in our democracy?

Mass. Peace Action (MAPA) established a precedent for free speech when we contested fees imposed by the City of Cambridge on the Women’s March in January. We refused to pay more than $4000 for police coverage of the march, which took place on the Cambridge Common. 

Michelle Cunha, MAPA’s assistant director and a leader in planning the march, twice refused to accept paperwork and a bill that Cambridge police tried to hand-deliver to her in the days leading up to the demonstration. (MAPA was the fiscal agent for the January Coalition, which organized the march.)

The city’s policy said that a gathering of 200 or more people “may require a police detail and/or DPW personnel in attendance at the expense of the applicant.”

“If such a policy were allowed to stand, think of how many groups might be prevented from gathering in large numbers or from speaking out, because they couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees required,” Cunha said. “This goes against two of our most precious, constitutionally protected rights – the right to assemble and the right to free speech.”

Charging fees for demonstrations is not an idea confined to Cambridge. The Trump administration has recently proposed limiting the venues of, and charging fees for, demonstrations in public spaces in Washington D.C. – an initiative that has provoked an outcry from civil rights and other groups.

Cunha stressed that Mass. Peace Action has good relations with City of Cambridge departments and officials, but was strongly opposed to the policy on principle. “Other cities, such as Boston, recognize that this is one of the things taxes are for—to let residents exercise their right to express their views,” Cunha noted. “If one municipality decides to charge for the right to rally and protest, then other municipalities may do the same. It could have a domino effect.”

Ruth Bourquin of ACLU Massachusetts represented Mass. Peace Action in its challenge to the City of Cambridge’s policy. After negotiations, the issue was settled out of court. The City waived the fee for the Women’s March and, equally important, changed its policy going forward: “The City will not impose such charges [for public safety services] on demonstrations or other non-commercial expressive events in city parks,” according to a statement sent to Cambridge city councilors by Lee Gianetti, the City’s director of communications.

The ACLU and the January Coalition issued a press release praising the City for changing its policy. “We are delighted that the City of Cambridge has adopted a policy that will set precedents and guarantee everyone, regardless of means, the right to assemble – and we thank the ACLU of Massachusetts for its work,” said Zayda Ortiz of the January Coalition and Indivisible Mystic Valley. “When freedom of speech comes with a price tag, it especially burdens marginalized groups, who might have fewer financial resources for charges. We hope that other municipalities across the Commonwealth can mirror this policy and safeguard our constitution.”

The January Coalition has already begun to organize next year’s Women’s March, which is scheduled for January 12, 2019 on the Boston Common.