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Free Speech Exercisers : Public Spaces are for Political Speech, Says the No Police State Coalition

Eric Laursen Oct 6, 2004

Geoffrey Blank of the No Police State Coalition goes back to 100 Centre Street on October 19. It’s not his favorite place in the city, but over the past few months, Manhattan Criminal Court is where the 30-year-old activist and teacher has done some of his best work.

No Police State began last year as a more militant response to the invasion of Iraq and the civil rights clampdown embodied by the USA Patriot Act. Blank, a Queens resident, was a founder. He helped steer the group into a series of monthly marches and, eventually, a regular Saturday afternoon speakout in Union Square that has helped return the venerable Manhattan concourse to its roots as a forum for every political point of view under the sun.

So far, so good. But along the way, Blank and his comrades have repeatedly found political speech – not just its presence, but its volume and degree of visibility. Contesting those limits has become as much a part of No Police State’s mission as ending the occupation of Iraq.

Political speech isn’t a special event, something that one should have to ask permission to practice, No Police State contends. “We’re not protesters,” says Blank. “We’re First Amendment exercisers.” The result has been more than 35 arrests, including 24 for Blank alone, that challenge the city’s restrictions on parading and its insistence that activists obtain permits to use a bullhorn or display banners over a certain size in public spaces.

No Police State members say they never seek to get arrested. But some New York activists complain that their tactics provoke unnecessary confrontations with police and prosecutors. Others prefer to keep their distance from the eccentric scene in Union Square, which journalists regularly trawl for easy stories about ranting misfits. Blank acknowledges some tension, but says it’s all one way. And even some of the same activists who criticize No Police State say they’re reluctant to see anyone back down at a time when the mayor and police commissioner treat the law as a tool for keeping some kinds of political speech out of sight.

The case that will reconvene on Oct. 19 may emerge as the most significant. It stems from an arrest at a speakout last November when police say Blank was using a bullhorn without a permit. Several other times he has been arrested for the same thing, but this time he is scheduled to go to trial. If his court date doesn’t result in another of 100 Centre Street’s innumerable postponements, he could at last get a chance to test his contention that a permit requirement for sound amplification is unconstitutional.

Either way, he won’t have a member of the bar standing up to represent him. Because over the months, No Police State have taken on another crusade. Convinced that the city’s legal defense establishment – “the clubhouse at 100 Centre Street” – would rather plead out cases than challenge judges and prosecutors on any fundamental free speech issues, the coalition members decided to represent themselves in court. Blank has defended himself in two cases, both of which were dismissed. October 19 will be the third. In June, Joel Meyers, another member of No Police State, was acquitted in a case in which he defended himself stemming from a speakout in July of last year.

No Police State now hold weekly workshops for others who want to act as “attorneys pursuant to 105(c)” – the section of the Civil Practice Law and Rules that defines attorneys as including any “party prosecuting or defending an action in person.” Neither judges, prosecutors, nor defense attorneys look kindly on this invasion of their turf, and No Police State have had to fight for what they believe the 14th Amendment guarantees them: equal status with any other member of their class – namely, defense attorneys.

Nevertheless, Blank believes that working even through progressive groups like the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Civil Liberties Union, he and his comrades would have had no chance of bringing up the free speech issues they hope to air.

They say the laws in question are not just unconstitutional, but have been ruled as such repeatedly in court – including by the U.S. Supreme Court. Blank cites Saia v. New York, a 1947 case in which the high court ruled that the authorities could not restrict amplified sound at rallies because “loudspeakers are today indispensable instruments for effective public speech.” Federal courts have overturned similar laws and regulations in Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, and other places, he adds – all on the grounds that they are unconstitutional.

Blank says this case law only turned up when No Police State members did their own legal research to represent themselves. Other limitations the city imposes that he says the coalition intends to challenge are rules requiring permits to display banners larger than 2 feet by 3 feet in public spaces and to hold assemblies of more than 20 people. And as for police orders – at the recent protests against the Republican National Convention, for example – that activists can only take up half the sidewalk on marches, there’s no such law on the books, Blank says. Only a rule that demonstrators not block pedestrian traffic.

That the police know they are on thin ground with their rules is suggested by the fact that most of the time, they leave No Police State alone: thirty-five-plus arrests may seem like a lot, except that the coalition been holding its speakouts – always with sound amplification – several times a week for almost a year. The deeper problem is the pattern of police enforcement, No Police State contend.

“It’s a question of the law being harshly applied against groups the government doesn’t like,” says Blank. “If we were preaching about Jesus, the court wouldn’t ever know my name. But the minute we start talking about Iraq, or about the political murder of young blacks and Latinos, they say, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’”
Blank believes No Police State is being targeted by police for their political views. In one notorious incident during a march last fall, police accused him of trying to take an officer’s gun while being tackled. Prosecutors subsequently threw out the case because they couldn’t prove the charge.