A U.S. federal judge has ruled that two protest groups cannot force New York City to give them permits to stage large rallies on Central Park's Great Lawn, days before the Republican National Convention.
Citing extraordinary security concerns facing New York City during the upcoming Republican National Convention, which begins next Monday, Judge William Pauley refused to allow a large rally, with an expected 75,000 people, to be held on Central Park's Great Lawn.
Judge Pauley said there were serious questions whether the city's largest open park space can handle the 75,000 people expected to attend a rally by the anti-war Answer Coalition and the National Council of Arab Americans.
The four-day Republican convention which will formally nominate President Bush for another term, will be held amidst unprecedented security, due to warnings from intelligence agencies of possible terrorist attacks aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential election.
The rally is scheduled for Saturday, two days before the Republican gathering.
Public policy expert Douglas Muzzio, a professor at New York's Baruch College, says the crux of the controversy is balancing the protesters' right of assembly against security concerns during the high profile Republican National Convention.
"You have got a classic conflict between security and order on the one hand and speech on the other," he said. "The First Amendment guarantees the right to dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, assembly and petition. One would expect that that would normally trump everything else. But in terms of security, physical safety, the courts have often ruled in favor of security."
Attorneys for New York City maintained that by denying all permits to use the city's Great Lawn during the convention, it was treating all protesters equally and fairly. They also argued a mass assembly would ruin the lawn, which was restored in 1997 at a cost of more than $18 million.
Lawyers for the protesters say that each year, tens of thousands of people gather for outdoor concerts on the Great Lawn.
Baruch College's Douglas Muzzio says protecting the city's lawn is not a valid reason to deny protesters a permit to stage their rally.
"If the decisions are made on security and order concerns, that might trump the First Amendment," he said. "But lawn care does not seem to be a compelling public interest compared to free speech."
Another protest group, United for Peace and Justice, is awaiting a decision on a similar lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan to force the city to let it use the park for a rally, with an expected attendance of 250,000, on Sunday August 29, the day before the Republican National Convention. The group does have a permit to march past the Madison Square Garden convention center, but not for a gathering in the park.