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ACLU to Kenney: Protect protesters' rights during convention

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has some questions about how the city will handle protesters during the Democratic National Convention.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has some questions about how the city will handle protesters during the Democratic National Convention.

Will protesters without a permit be arrested? Will the city really forbid marches on Broad Street? And what happens if thousands try to stay overnight in FDR Park?

Less than two months out from the convention, the organization sent a letter to Mayor Kenney on Wednesday seeking answers on how protesters will be treated. The city responded the same day.

"This is about clarity," said Mary Catherine Roper, the organizations's deputy legal director. "It's really important. The city has gone out of its way to talk to reporters about how accommodating they will be of protests, but in talks with us, they've suggested a different approach."

Roper said the city had not confirmed that it would accommodate protests without permits, as it has traditionally done. She said protesters traveling to Philadelphia for the convention from July 25 to 28 should know what they're in for: "Are we going to have people come here thinking it's fine to do this, and then finding themselves in police custody?"

Kenney said he was surprised by the letter, given how closely the city has been working with the group.

"We've been working with them since March," he said. "They've had access to every high-level person in government. We've been addressing all the issues and concerns."

He said the city was encouraging people to get permits because it is safer for everyone and easier for police to prepare.

But will marchers without advanced permission be arrested?

"Probably not," Kenney said. "But, again, we encourage them to get a permit. We're not looking to arrest anyone. This is the birthplace of liberty and the birthplace of the First Amendment, and we expect people to be able to express themselves."

Kenney's administration has also pushed for legislation, expected to pass City Council in time for the convention, that would decriminalize certain nuisance crimes like failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. Rather than making arrests, police would be able to issue civil fines.

Roper said the city also told the ACLU it would not allow protests on Broad Street or anywhere in Center City during rush hour. City spokeswoman Lauren Hitt confirmed that permits would not be issued during rush hour but said there was no blanket ban on permits for demonstrations on Broad.

The ACLU also wants clarity on whether protesters will be allowed to stay overnight in FDR Park and a commitment from the city that any fencing around the park will allow a view of protesters from the Wells Fargo Center, where the convention will be held.

Hitt said the closing time of the park had been extended to 10 p.m., but "we are not permitting for camping."

A city ordinance prohibits the Police Department from infiltrating protest groups without consent of the mayor or managing director. But during the Republican National Convention in 2000, the city circumvented that law by using state police to infiltrate groups.

Hitt said that state police were not legally bound by city police policies but that all outside law enforcement would know "we don't expect them to stray outside the scope."

More than 50,000 protesters are expected to come to Philadelphia.

"If you're active in any kind of political issues, there's no bigger event for you," Roper said. "This is it, in terms of the biggest possible forum. Of course people expect to be able to participate in that discussion."

The full letter the ACLU sent to Kenney can be found at

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso