PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit today on behalf of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) asking the court to issue an emergency injunction to stop Pittsburgh police from issuing citations and arresting anti-war protesters for sitting or lying on a sidewalk even when they do not block traffic.
"It is not a crime to sit or lie on a sidewalk unless the person intentionally blocks the entire sidewalk so other people can't get by," said Witold Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director and one of the protestors' lawyers. "These well-behaved students are already braving the elements and battling hecklers to get out their message; they shouldn't have to fight the police too."
On September 4 POG began a four-week, round-the-clock vigil in front of the Army recruiting office on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood. The protesters, several of whom are fasting, are holding anti-war signs, distributing leaflets and discussing America's involvement in Iraq with passers-by. Protesters have used a 5' x 15' rectangular area of the sidewalk, strategically selected to avoid obstructing pedestrians or people entering nearby storefronts, to rest, either by sitting, lying down and even sleeping.
"As I enter the fifteenth day of my fast to end the war, it is essential that I remain on the public sidewalk unencumbered by police harassment so as to be able to exercise my First Amendment rights," said Mike Butler, a member of POG who has been cited or threatened with arrest eight times since the start of the vigil.
Over the past two weeks Pittsburgh police officers have issued numerous citations, arrested and detained one young woman, and filed misdemeanor charges against the protesters for allegedly violating state law against obstructing roads and sidewalks. The police actions have been taken only against protesters who were sitting or lying on the sidewalk.
"While the City has a responsibility to keep the pedestrians in Oakland safe, it nonetheless has a duty to protect the protestors' fundamental First Amendment rights. The City's misuse of the 'obstruction' statute only serves to stifle the protestors' rights," said ACLU cooperating attorney Doug McKechnie of the law firm Healey & Hornack, P.C.
The protestors are represented by Walczak and volunteer lawyers McKechnie and Michael Healey of Healey & Hornack, P.C. The case is Pittsburgh Organizing Group v. City of Pittsburgh. The case has been assigned to Judge Conti, who has scheduled a hearing for tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. The hearing will be in the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Grant Street.
More information, including photos, a copy of the complaint and the motion requesting a temporary restraining order can be found at: www.aclupa.org/pog