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Anti-abortion activists protest march-fees bill; Annapolis proposal would charge events for police services


About 30 anti-abortion activists showed up at Annapolis City Hall last night to lambaste proposed legislation that would charge event organizers as much as $5,400 for police services, arguing it could affect their annual State House march and violate their First Amendment rights.

The Annapolis March for Life committee mailed 4,000 fliers urging its members to show up at the public hearing after city spokesman Thomas W. Roskelly informed them three weeks ago that permit approval for their March 1 event was being held up because of the pending legislation.

The march from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to the State House involves closing Rowe Boulevard at least an hour.

Roskelly approved the permit yesterday after meeting with Mayor Dean L. Johnson and Paul G. Goetzke, the city attorney. But he said it remains an open question whether a march is covered under the constitutional guarantees of free speech. If the law passes, the March for Life organization might have to pay to march next year.

"There is a contention that a procession from point A to point B is not" free speech, Roskelly said. "That's something that the Office of Law is looking at now. The city attorney is examining the First Amendment implications."

Arthur W. Sawyer Jr., march committee chairman, said he does not object to the ordinance but that his organization should not have to pay. The event drew almost 2,000 marchers last year.

"Anyone who has seen the march the last 20 years knows that this is an opportunity for participants to make their views known to the legislature," Sawyer said. "With their signs, banners, placards and candles the marchers are exercising their right of free speech."

He said his group has never had a problem obtaining the required permits since the first march in 1980.

The group needs a city permit to march from the stadium to the State House and a permit from the state to hold its rally on Lawyers Mall.

The state granted the rally permit in October.

Alderman Herb McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican, introduced the bill Dec. 14 under which event organizers would be charged for use of city facilities and use of services.

McMillan said it would help pay the more than $300,000 the city spends annually on services such as police overtime and trash removal during parades, boat shows and other events.

The dispute with the anti-abortion group arose after Roskelly sent a letter Dec. 9 to Sawyer saying he was "refraining from sending any approved permits in 1999" because the pending legislation could slap a $5,400 tab on the group for police costs.

Roskelly wrote: "The feeling here is it would be unfair to issue a permit to you at this time only to tell you at a later date about the costs for which you may be responsible."

The group was one of two whose permits Roskelly was holding up. The other was the Maryland Children's Initiative, which wanted to organize a march Feb. 15 that also would require closing Rowe Boulevard. Roskelly said he approved both permits yesterday because McMillan's legislation will not be voted on until next month.

A handful of Annapolis residents spoke in favor of the McMillan bill.

"The city has had many events come through here over a long period of time, and that has cost citizens," said Geoff Bridges. "We do need that revenue."

Dwight Sullivan, an American Civil Liberties Union staff counsel, called charging marchers for police services "blatantly unconstitutional."

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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