ACLU Challenges Cambridge Tax on Events and Demonstrations in Public Parks

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the City of Cambridge on Tuesday, July 3, challenging an ambiguous policy of billing event organizers for police and medical services. The lawsuit — filed on behalf of Massachusetts Peace Action and the Massachusetts Peace Action Education Fund — says the city’s actions are a deterrent for political participation and an attack on free speech.

The ACLU revealed in a released statement that the two organizations were charged some $4,000 after the January 2018 Women’s March in Cambridge, which they helped plan. The money was to go to several police departments and EMT services that oversaw the march that day. According to the official complaint sent by the ACLU to the City of Cambridge, the organizers were told beforehand by the Cambridge Police Department that a public safety charge was a possibility; one other group involved in the planning of the Women’s March allegedly dropped out of their duties in protest of potentially funding police services. However, there was no definitive answer to whether Massachusetts Peace Action would be charged — or to the amount they would be charged — until the bill was handed to them after the march.

“These bills are a burden on our advocacy,” said Michelle Cunha, Assistant Director of Massachusetts Peace Action, in the statement. “Our work rests firmly on The First Amendment. To erode the foundation of our work erodes the foundation of our country. This lawsuit will help clarify everyone’s rights to free speech and assembly.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts, which filed the lawsuit to the Middlesex Superior Court, searched public records from the City of Cambridge to investigate the legality of the billing procedure in question. What they found was vague and inconsistent: just three documents which state that organizers may need to pay for public safety services, but never state in which situations these services would be a necessity nor how much the cost would be. The ACLU says that this sparse language diminishes the legitimacy of these charges, and that the charges chill free speech and assembly rights.

“There should never be a tax on speech and assembly,” said Ruth Bourquin, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in the statement. “The event organizers and ACLU alike are concerned about the impact of the City’s practices on the exercise of free speech of all who seek permits for the Cambridge Common and other public parks.”

While the City of Cambridge declined to comment on their ongoing litigation, City Manager Louis DePasquale stated in a letter sent to the City Council that they will continue to work alongside the ACLU to find a resolution on the issue.  

“I have been discussing this issue with the ACLU,” DePasquale said. “I am disappointed that they chose to go to Superior Court as I believed we were working collaboratively on a solution, and because the City was close to resolving this issue.”

Zach Mobrice is an intern at Spare Change News. A native of Rhode Island, Zach studies journalism at Roger Williams University.

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