Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Organizers of the Women’s March held Jan. 20 on Cambridge Common pose for a photo. Zayda Ortiz, of the January Coalition, is in the pink sweater. (Photo: Michelle Cunha via Facebook)

Cambridge has changed its policy over charging for public safety services during protests in its parks, deciding to waive the fees as a result of a lawsuit, the ACLU of Massachusetts and city officials announced Thursday.

The civil liberties group filed a lawsuit July 3 challenging the city’s policy of charging event organizers for public safety services. Its clients were Massachusetts Peace Action and Massachusetts Peace Action Education Fund, organizations that helped plan the Women’s March event that took place January on the Cambridge Common, who complained that the practice “deters political participation” in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

The settlement with those groups is effective immediately, with city websites to be updated to show the new policy. Per the settlement, the city will waive all charges for public safety services it arranged for in connection with the Women’s March, the ACLU said.

“The right to join with neighbors in protest is core to the First Amendment and critical to a healthy and vibrant democracy,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a press release. “At a time when the federal government is inciting division and seeking to chill free speech, the voices of rally organizers and participants should be encouraged and applauded – not taxed. We are pleased that the City of Cambridge is standing up for peaceful assembly in public parks.”

City Manager Louis A. DePasquale called Cambridge “deeply committed to supporting the public’s right to freely express their views and peacefully assemble.” He thanked the ACLU of Massachusetts for working with the city “to come to a mutually agreeable resolution.”

Michelle Cunha, assistant director of Massachusetts Peace Action also had thanks for the city and ACLU, saying the organizers were “heartened to know that free speech and assembly continue to be free in Cambridge.” Fellow organizer Zayda Ortiz, of the January Coalition, said that “when freedom of speech comes with a price tag, it especially burdens marginalized groups, who might have fewer financial resources for charges. We hope that other municipalities across the commonwealth can mirror this policy and safeguard our constitution. When the voices of the unheard are liberated and amplified, our society grows stronger.”

Despite completing the permitting process and paying permit application fees before the event, organizers – operating as the January Coalition – were told less than two weeks before the event that they could be additionally charged for public safety needs, including police coverage and emergency medical services. That discussion happened after the organizers mentioned to police that there could be counter-protesters at the event, according to the lawsuit.

The Women’s March in Cambridge went forward Jan. 20 and was peaceful, with a light police presence. Shortly afterward, organizers said they received bills totaling thousands of dollars for police details and emergency medical technician services and were told that more – including invoices for police details from neighboring cities and towns – would be forthcoming.

This post took significant amounts of material from a press release.