HARRISBURG — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Harrisburg, alleging that the city violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by forcing climate activists to navigate a burdensome and expensive permitting process in order to hold a festival and peaceful march.
Better Path Coalition, a group of climate activists and organizations from across Pennsylvania, is planning three days of events in Harrisburg in June, including a festival, a march, and a rally at the state capitol.
When one of the event’s lead organizers, Karen Feridun, investigated the need for permits and other requirements, she found that three different government agencies had jurisdiction over the venues: the city of Harrisburg has jurisdiction over the park where the festival is to be held and some of the roads to reach the capitol building, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) over the remaining roads where the march is routed; and capitol police over the rally at the capitol building.
All three agencies, Ms. Feridun found, imposed what she believed to be unconstitutional restrictions on a public gathering. While the ACLU-PA was able to resolve the issues with the capitol police and PennDOT, the city of Harrisburg continued to insist that Better Path Coalition cover the cost of traffic control during the events, obtain expensive insurance, agree to indemnify Harrisburg for any damage including that caused by people beyond the coalition’s control, and assorted other conditions beyond their capability.
“Free speech doesn’t come with an entrance fee,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The right to freely assemble and peacefully demonstrate is a cornerstone of our democracy. We must remain vigilant in defending that right, especially when it is being violated at our state capitol.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order Harrisburg to block the city’s enforcement of its permitting system, including the remaining fees.
“Harrisburg’s permitting process is an inaccessible maze of unnecessary bureaucracy and a patchwork of unconstitutional costs, insurance fees, and other problematic requirements” said Steve Loney, senior supervising attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “There are countless examples of municipalities that offer a streamlined permitting process that don’t include unconstitutional conditions. Harrisburg can and must do better.”
You can find the filing here.