ACLU sues Atlanta over Centennial Olympic Park restrictions

Friday, May 11, 2001

When Georgia officials unveiled Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics, they hailed it as “the world’s gathering place.”

But a handful of Atlanta activists say that in years since, that claim has fallen flat. In a lawsuit filed against the city last month, they allege city officials continually thwart their efforts to secure permits to hold demonstrations.

“It’s mind-boggling that my political free speech here at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta is about the same as it is in Tiananmen Square (in) China,” said Anthony Don George, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, seeks a court order preventing the enforcement of criminal regulations that limit speech and assembly in the park.

Specifically, the lawsuit cites regulations that make it a criminal offense to “hold vigils or religious services, and other like forms of conduct which principally involved the communication or expression of views or grievances, which has the intent, effect, or propensity to draw a crowd of onlookers.”

“In this country, parks are places where citizens have the right to gather and speak their minds,” said Gerry Weber, legal director of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU. “But in Centennial Olympic Park, exercising your rights can land you in jail.”

The lawsuit also challenges the ability of the Georgia World Congress Authority to adopt criminal laws for the park. The state General Assembly granted that body the authority in 1995 when it created the park.

Calls to the city’s law department were not returned.

Dan Graveline, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Authority, said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the ACLU’s claims because he hadn’t seen the lawsuit.

But Graveline said the regulations were necessary because of the endless requests for permits.

“We have so many of them, we have to have a process,” Graveline said in a telephone interview. “We have to manage this effectively, so as not to have a free-for-all.”

Graveline said time, place and manner restrictions have to be in place when 10 different groups request permits for the exact same time. He stressed that the content of the demonstrations and assemblies is never an issue when the authority grants permits.

“In our minds, we’re never trying to restrict free speech or opportunities for people to gather,” he said.

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