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 sent out 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 to charge event organizers for use of city facilities and use of services Dec. 14.
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.
Problems with the anti-abortion group arose when 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 because of the legislation. 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 residents at last night's meeting 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 of Annapolis. "We do need that revenue."
Dwight Sullivan, an American Civil Liberties Union staff counsel, called charging marchers for police services "blatantly unconstitutional."
"If they allow that you'd have the police directly controlling the cost of entering your ideas into the marketplace of ideas simply by saying this is controversial speech, therefore we need more police than it would for somebody with a less controversial view," Sullivan said. "That's viewpoint discrimination. Constitutionally, they may not charge for the march. The law is very clear here."
McMillan said he does not intend to limit assembly or free speech with his legislation.
"Nobody's muzzling anybody," he said. "I certainly don't think there should be any charge [for a demonstration]. But do you have a right to march down Rowe Boulevard and close it to traffic on your way to presenting your grievances, on your way to exercising your free speech? They could walk down the sidewalk to Lawyers Mall and they wouldn't have to pay for anything."
McMillan said he might amend his bill to exempt rally organizers from the charges but require groups putting together marches and parades to pay if streets have to be closed.
The city council will hold a public hearing on the bill Jan. 25.
Pub Date: 1/05/99