Free speech advocates urging police restraint

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In a City Council hearing yesterday, several free speech advocates argued that police, not protesters, have been responsible for confrontations at other major events on par with September's G-20 gathering of world leaders in Pittsburgh.

That has led to multi-million dollar settlements, including $12.8 million paid out by the city of Los Angeles after large immigration rallies there in 2007.

After hosting the Republican National Convention in 2004, New York City paid $1.5 million to settle lawsuits. Seattle faced $1 million in settlement costs following the 1999 gathering of the World Trade Organization, an event that saw heated clashes between police and protesters.

"In recent years, we have documented a resurgence of police abuse and violence aimed at protesters," Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, told council members. "We hope that the city of Pittsburgh will take seriously our belief that police overreaction is not needed to ensure the safety of event participants."

She suggested police avoid large deployments of officers in riot gear, which could appear provocative, and the use of less-lethal munitions, like beanbag rounds and tear gas. She also said "free-speech zones," or designated areas where protesters can gather, are unconstitutional and dangerous.

Councilman Jim Motznik said officers need to be ready for the worst, including the possibility that some protesters will turn violent. "I believe when they go over the boundaries, they need to be dealt with, and dealt with severely," he said. "Because we have a summit in town doesn't mean we shouldn't enforce the law."

Yesterday's hearing was called by Councilman Bruce Kraus, chairman of council's Public Safety Committee. He called for dialogue between protesters and city officials to make sure there is no violence.

Sara J. Rose, an attorney for the Pittsburgh office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization would be helping protesters obtain city permits to hold demonstrations. The ACLU will also provide legal services to protesters who are arrested.

She said the city and federal officials would face significant obstacles to restrict free speech activities near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the main meeting site for the G-20.

The federal government has designated the summit a National Special Security Event, placing the Secret Service in charge of security preparations.

In a separate news conference yesterday, Pittsburgh G-20 organizers urged Downtown businesses and residents to plan for anticipated summit disruptions and to be ready to revise those plans as conditions warrant.

"We're going to keep the city open," said Michael Huss, the Pittsburgh public safety director, while he acknowledged that inevitably, "there will be inconveniences."

Local officials urged businesses and residents to prepare contingency plans for the September events and offered tools to help them respond to the demands and surprises certain to be posed by the summit.

"Now is the time to be prepared, don't wait for G-20," said Bob Full, director of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services.

The officials noted that most large corporations have contingency plans for business disruptions as a matter of course, but to help smaller business, they suggested a variety of resources, including the Web site of the Pittsburgh Coalition for Security -- www.pittsburghcoalitionforsecurity.org -- to help them think through the potential hurdles of the influx of worldwide dignitaries and media.

Catherine DeLoughry, an official of the Allegheny County Conference on Community Development, suggested that firms take steps such as analyzing how their employees commute to work, where they park and what alternative transportation might be available.

At the news conference at the Regional Enterprise Tower, the officials stressed that early planning would not give firms a step-by-step game plan for Sept. 24 and 25. Rather, it would allow them to be agile in responding to last-minute changes and disruptions.


Staff writer James O'Toole contributed to this report. Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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