Baltimore officials approved Wednesday a payment of nearly $100,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union to settle a longstanding federal lawsuit over protesters' rights in Baltimore.
As part of the settlement, city officials agreed to loosen restrictions on protesting. The new rules allow groups of up to 30 people to protest or pass out fliers without obtaining a permit at all city parks and 10 designated locations, including McKeldin Square by the Inner Harbor.
City Solicitor George Nilson, a member of the Board of Estimates, which authorized the deal, also said protesters can now obtain instant permits to hold demonstrations.
"It's been a long time coming," Nilson said of the settlement. "The police are being trained in those new rules and will be trained aggressively for the next month or two. We hope the Inner Harbor will be a better place for everybody."
Those who break the new rules can face fines of between $250 and $2,000, the documents say.
The settlement stems from a 2003 lawsuit filed by a group of anti-war activists whom police forced to disperse during a silent vigil at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. They accused the city in a federal lawsuit of violating basic free-speech rights by requiring costly, burdensome permits for demonstrations on public property.
In response, city officials reached a tentative agreement with the group, known as the Women in Black, and began allowing demonstrations for groups of fewer than 25 people without a permit.
Since the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the loose-knit coalition known as Women in Black has held silent vigils every Friday at the Inner Harbor's McKeldin Square, near the intersection of Pratt and Light streets.
Wearing black as a symbol of mourning and carrying signs with peace slogans, the group's weekly demonstrations are silent. They contend that words "cannot express the painful tragedy of war and violence," according to the federal suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The ACLU, which represented the group, objected to city rules at the time that required small protests at a city parks to obtain permits.
"Permits are a bureaucratic burden," said David Rocah, staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland. "Permits by themselves can act to deter speech."
Although city officials say they had enacted temporary rules for protests, Rocah said they weren't widely known and sporadically enforced. "There was no defined policy," he said. "Frequently, the city only allowed free speech demonstrations when they got a call from the ACLU."
Betsy Cunningham, organizer of the Women in Black weekly peace vigils and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said her group is "proud to have helped create a space for peaceful demonstrations in the city."
In deciding the settle the suit, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city was looking to "strike a balance" by allowing smaller protests without permits in some areas, while requiring permits for larger groups.
"We want to protect the First Amendment, but we also have to be prepared," she said. "If it's a huge protest that requires traffic control and police presence, we have to know about that, so we can prepare."
According to documents presented by the city's law department to the Board of Estimates, the payment of $98,000 to the ACLU of Maryland will cover attorneys' fees.
"It doesn't make financial sense for the city to be in these protracted cases," Rawlings-Blake said.
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