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Protesters sue city over Klan rally

Tuesday, November 8, 2005 by

Several citizens and some independent media producers sued the City of Austin in federal court Monday, claiming the Austin Police Department’s security procedures for the Ku Klux Klan rally on Saturday violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Attorney Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project is demanding that the city revise its protocols for issuing media credentials and, in the future, require less separation between demonstrators and any counter-demonstrators at high-profile events.

A spokesman for the city countered that APD and the city’s Public Information Office had only done what was necessary to keep the Klan rally and the counter-demonstration peaceful.

“The police certainly have a right to keep the situation under control and maintain peace and maintain order. They have to do that. But they also have a constitutional obligation to make sure that the opponents of the rally taking place here get to express themselves and have their voice heard,” said Herrington. “In reality, they established a perimeter so far away from City Hall that they destroyed any ability of a counter-protest. This was an unconstitutional restriction on those who came to demonstrate.”

While police may have had a legitimate concern about violence erupting between the two groups, Herrington said, that was not sufficient grounds for infringing upon the First Amendment rights of the protestors. “The government would always have a reason to suppress speech,” he said. “The First Amendment is such a precious right in our icons of liberty that the courts say you can’t have prior restraint, and that’s exactly what we had on Saturday.”

Five of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are individual citizens upset over the protest buffer zone. The other three plaintiffs are independent media producers challenging the city’s process for determining which media outlets were allowed onto the City Hall Plaza.

“I had contacted the city well over a week before the event asking what their credentialing process would be for the media,” said Spencer Nutting, who is working on an independent film documentary on the issue of gay marriage. “I was told by the public information office that the City of Austin doesn’t offer any credentials, that we don’t require such credentials. It was only at the eleventh hour on the Wednesday before that I was informed that the city had changed its policy.”

Herrington said he believed the city’s policies were discriminatory since it was more difficult for non-profit media outlets to comply with the city’s guidelines for receiving credentials. “They were trying to keep this to the mainstream media,” he said. “The requirements for credentials were so strong that not even Ben Franklin or Tom Paine would have qualified to be a media representative on Saturday. We ask that the judge invalidate the city procedures so that this bogus credentialing procedure they have is declared unconstitutional and can never be used again.”

Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said the city acted to ensure the safety of those involved—both the Klan and those protesting the KKK’s message. One reason for the city’s concern was the outbreak of violence in Toledo, Ohio on October 16 when a white supremacist group scheduled a rally. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the National Socialist Movement had planned a demonstration but had to call it off when rioting occurred. Police arrested 65 people, charging them with assault, vandalism and similar crimes, the newspaper said. To read that account, click here.

Garza said the city prevented protesters from approaching those participating in a Fortune 500 event gathering in Austin, although he acknowledged that the events were not quite the same. The Fortune 500 participants walked into a banquet at the Convention Center( See In Fact Daily, Oct. 13, 2000).

The biggest difference between this rally and other types of gatherings, he said, “the history of what you get that follows these kinds of (white supremacist) rallies. That is the major factor…It’s a different environment. It’s an emotional, high tension situation. I don’t think there are too many events that match up to that level of intensity.”

Garza also defended the city’s decision to screen the media, whom he said were able to report on the events in safety. Not only did the city want to prevent non-media members from masquerading as members of the media, but also “we wanted to make sure that we had experienced professional individuals in a situation where they could objectively report.”

“When you’re asking someone that has completely different moral values than you and they give you an answer that makes you sick to your stomach, then you just report it as it is. And somebody who is not trained may in fact respond with an emotional response.” The city wanted to prevent that sort of confrontation, Garza said.

Waller Creek Tunnel lacks panel's support

Last night’s meeting of the Citizens Bond Election Advisory Committee was as focused on the process of the final vote on a bond package recommendation as it was on the specific items that would go to the city’s voters next May.

That won’t be the case for long. The committee has two more meetings – last night was the second of four – to pair down $851 million in projects to a self-imposed $600 million bond proposal. In a round-robin discussion of the values behind the package, members spoke time and again of parity, accountability and good faith with the voters. At the same time, developer Tom Terkel, who chairs the subcommittee on facilities, joked that he had moved from “great optimism to virtual despair back to optimism” in the course of his committee’s work to come up with a bond package recommendation.

Half of last night’s meeting wrestled with the process issue, along with testimony from various stakeholders and some discussion of the city’s non-bond revenues for capital improvement projects. Budget Officer Greg Canall y reviewed a summary of preferences from about half the committee members in a chart that showed a low to high preference range for the various subcommittees: affordable housing; drainage; facilities; open space; and transportation. Committee member Dave Sullivan said the percentages showed that committee members were most strongly in support of the recommendations on transportation, followed by affordable housing and drainage. Open space followed, and the support for facilities was the most mixed.

That led to an expanded discussion of the proposed drainage projects in the package, with committee members promising to take no final votes on the issues. It was clear from the discussion however, that the votes weren’t there to support the Waller Creek tunnel project funding. A majority of those who voted on the individual projects supported no funding at all for the tunnel. A number of commissioners agreed that it was the $50 million to $68 million cost of the project – and how that would impact the final total on the bond package recommendation—that swayed their votes.

Sullivan suggested a public-private partnership, where the city would put up half of the total if the stakeholders who would benefit from the project put up the other half. That suggestion was left on the table for discussion at a future meeting.

Stakeholders in the audience, many who had spoken at prior meetings, were supportive of various projects. The Austin Film Society spoke about support for the airport hangars. Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance would have liked more money for land in the Barton Springs recharge zone but said he would support the proposals. Housing Works was on hand to point out that no money in any prior bond issue had gone for affordable housing in Austin. And owners from the warehouse district came forward to pledge their support for the Great Streets project.

Margaret Henkels of the Austin Public Library Foundation spoke in support of the new central library, especially given the lack of capacity in the current system. For every book put on a shelf at the library, a book must come off, Henkels said.

Terkel, who is looking at $300 million in recommendations under his facilities subcommittee, carefully questioned Henkels. The total for the central library was high for some, Terkel said. Could Henkels support a more Spartan library facility in the range of 300,000-square-feet without the bells and whistles? Terkel asked.

“We could support a Spartan and straightforward building, but I think we need to make sure it has the infrastructure that is needed to support our system,” Henkels said. “Our current central library was built when Austin had about 300,000 people, and we’ve about doubled in size. The demand on the system is heavy…. I don’t think anyone is looking for a monument. I think we’re looking for a building that is simple and functional.”

The group also had some discussion of the overlap between open space and drainage buyouts, hoping to squeeze one pot in order to fill the other, especially when it came to land near SH 130. George Oswald and Mike Kelly of Watershed Protection and Development Review, however, noted that open space in a recharge zone was not interchangeable with open space in a flood plain.

Next week, the Bond Election Advisory Committee is likely to spend between 30 and 40 minutes on other subcommittee reports in transportation, facilities, open space and housing. Terkel’s committee, in particular, has offered to provide written responses in advance to committee members, given the complexity of his subcommittee’s work.

Committee member Amy Mok noted some concern that the subcommittee may have whittled too many projects from the drainage list – especially given that the committee of the whole would be making cuts, too – and noted that it might have been doing more of a service simply to review and validate the projects on the list and then allow the full committee to do the cutting. Chair Charles Urdy said that would be an issue the committee would carefully weigh.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Election night . . . While those who like to see the numbers will likely gather at the Travis County’s Clerk’s headquarters on Airport Blvd, county bond program supporters will hold a party at Nuevo Leon restaurant on East Sixth Street, starting at 7:30pm. There is no organized opposition to the bonds . . . The No Nonsense in November campaign, opponents of Proposition 2, will gather at Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto, at 8pm . . . Tina Benkiser, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, sent out an email last night urging supporters of Proposition 2 to get to the polls today. She wrote, “The opponents of traditional marriage are working hard to deceive voters and they will continue to do so until the polls close tomorrow.” Also, opponents of the amendment used automated calls from the president of the Human Rights Campaign to urge amendment opponents to vote today . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The T ravis County Commissioners meet at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . Williamson County Commissioners meet at 9:30am in the Pct 3 JP Courtroom, 301 SE Inner Loop in Georgetown . . . Zilker Bluffs Open House . . . On Wednesday evening, the Town Lake Trail Foundation will host an open house/evening reception for city leaders and volunteers who participated in the Town Lake Trail Improvement Workday held June 3, 2005. Trail users are encouraged to join in the event to recognize the latest improvements and to thank the dedicated individuals who donated time and energy to the projects. Guests will meet at the parking lot next to the Zilker Park volleyball courts at the west end of Lou Neff Road at 5:30pm. Parking is available along Lou Neff Road and in additional parking areas in Zilker Park. . . . Coyote Town Hall Meeting . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken is sponsoring a neighborhood town hall to provide West Austin residents with information about the increase in coyote sightings. Residents will hear from professional staff on how to report coyote sightings and strategies for dealing with the increasing presence of coyotes in the area. The county’s wildlife biologist will be in attendance and will be joined by staff from animal control, the city’s 311 program and APD. The meeting is set for 7pm Wednesday at Casis Elementary, 2710 Exposition Blvd. For more information contact . . . Commanders’ Forums set . . . The Austin Police Department will hold two Commander’s Forums tonight to share and discuss issues and concerns with residents and business owners to improve the quality of life within the area commands. One is at the Northwest Area Command forum will be at 7pm at Westview Middle School, 1805 Scofield Lane, and South Central Area Command will be at 6:30pm at Christ Lutheran Church, 300 East Monroe Street.

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