Judge supports Million Youth March organizers’ permit application

Thursday, August 27, 1998

Khallid Abdul M...
Khallid Abdul Muhammad

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that New York City officials unconstitutionally denied Million Youth March organizers a permit for their planned Sept. 5 event in Harlem.

The city's decision not to issue a permit violated the First Amendment and was based on rules that were “breathtaking in their lack of standards,” ruled U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan after an eight-hour hearing.

Kaplan rejected the city's public safety argument, noting that the city had “ample ability” to ensure the safety of residents, spectators and participants in the rally. He went on to say that the rules for allocating permits for street events were too broad and the city's decisions too arbitrary.

March chief organizer and controversial speaker Khallid Abdul Muhammad and others had sued the city last week, saying Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had the application denied because of his dislike for Muhammad, a former aide to the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Muhammad has regularly attacked Jews, Catholics and gays in his speeches. Giuliani and several of Harlem's community leaders have made clear their opposition to Muhammad and have voiced concerns about possible violence at what they've labeled as the “hate rally.”

City officials had suggested alternative sites for what organizers originally had tagged a “First Amendment Educational Event.” Those sites included Randalls Island or Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. But in his ruling, Kaplan said that those were unacceptable because they were remote and would “adversely affect” the organizers' ability “to get their message out.”

New York Civil Liberties Union Director Norman Siegel was not available for comment, but in a recently released statement he said: “The Supreme Court has been clear in holding that a municipality cannot prohibit a political march or demonstration out of disagreement with the ideas conveyed at the demonstration.

“The Mayor and Khallid Muhammad must recognize the constitutional limits that apply to each of them,” Siegel said. “On the one hand, the Constitution does not permit the City to treat Muhammad differently from the way that it treats the organizers of other large-scale events in the City. On the other hand, Muhammad has no right to assemble large numbers of people on the city streets without limitation, and the City can place reasonable restrictions on such assemblies. The New York Civil Liberties Union calls on both sides to work to reach a reasonable accommodation in this matter.”

Giuliani criticized the judge's decision, saying, “The judge said he was sure the Police Department could handle it. The Police Commissioner isn't sure, and he knows a little more about the Police Department than the judge does.”

Christopher Dunn, a staff attorney with the civil liberties group, said: “Yesterday's decision was the latest in a now long string of defeats for the Giuliani administration issues of public protest in New York City. This is the fourth case in four months in which the federal courts have struck down as unconstitutional efforts by the city to suppress public protest.”

Those decisions involve street artists, cabbies and protests on the steps of City Hall.

Said Dunn: “The mayor has a clear hostility to public protest and does not seem to understand the meaning or the role of the First Amendment in our society.”

City officials promised an appeal. Michael Hess, an attorney for the city, has not returned phone calls.

Organizers told Kaplan that they expected no more than 175,000 people to attend the event. Kaplan instructed them to abide by the city's safety provisions, such as keeping emergency lanes open on either side of Malcolm X Boulevard.