Judge rules in city's favor in police-abuse accusations

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U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster ruled this afternoon against an immediate injunction against Pittsburgh police on allegations the force has been engaging in systematic attempts to harass and discourage First Amendment activities.

The judge said he would not take action to prohibit the police department from doing their jobs as the G-20 summit begins, but that plaintiffs were free to return to court after the summit to pursue their lawsuit for any violations.

Seeds of Peace Collective and Three Rivers Climate Convergence filed a lawsuit yesterday claiming that police had been engaged in a systematic pattern of harassment to discourage First Amendment activities.

Seeds of Peace is a group that cooks and provides free meals to demonstrators across the country. Since Friday, members have had their bus towed for parking violations; they have been stopped for loitering while walking to a residence where they were staying; and they have been forced to move their bus from two spots where they said they previously had permission from the property owners to stay.

In his ruling, Judge Lancaster said that just because Seeds of Peace members are in Pittsburgh to help advance free speech "does not give them immunity from local traffic and zoning laws."

The groups had asked the judge to prohibit the city from stopping members of the group and asking for identification without a warrant or probable cause.

He said he would not do that with the heightened security now necessary for G-20.

But, he continued, "To be clear, we are not here to determine if constitutional violations have occurred," Judge Lancaster said.

Further, he said, that that while the complaint does not warrant injunctive relief, the plaintiffs can still seek monetary damages.

Members of the activist groups were displeased by the judge's opinion.

"I can tell you this, democracy is dead in Pittsburgh," said Lisa Fithian, who is working with Three Rivers Climate Convergence.

Witold Walczak, the legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said, "It's hard to imagine a situation where a peaceful group that makes food . . . could attract this much firepower and police attention and not be harassment," he said.

The Seeds of Peace group moved the bus from a former school in Larimer to a church on the North Side today, but less than five minutes after the conclusion of the hearing, Mr. Walczak said, police were already at the North Avenue site, again demanding the bus be moved.

He said they cited "eminent domain," as the reason.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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