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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

No such thing as free speech: City tries to bill Merton Center $6,000 for G-20 march

Posted By on Wed, Jan 20, 2010 at 10:19 PM

So much for free speech: The city of Pittsburgh is trying to bill the Thomas Merton Center a whopping $6,346.44 for security used during a Sept. 25 G-20 march.

Melissa Minnich, communications director for the TMC, says the bill arrived Jan. 15, billing the long-time activist group for the cost of policing a permitted march that went from Oakland through Downtown and the North Side.

click to enlarge mertonctrinvoice.jpg

The bill covers the permitted march only -- not any unpermitted G-20 demonstration.

According to the invoice, the police furnished 50 officers for a six-hour shift between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. that day. Included with 47 officers was the cost of one lieutenant ($56.48/hour) and two sergeants (at $50.01 per hour). In all, security costs totaled more than $12,500 for the event -- though more than half of that amount was paid for by the city.

No arrests were made during the march, which took place along a route that was tightly controlled by police -- to the point that, on some Downtown streets especially, it resembled nothing so much as a cattle run. And for the Merton Center -- which had to file a lawsuit against the city to have the march in the first place -- the bill is insult to injury. Activists were highly critical of heavy-handed security tactics ... the very tactics they are now being charged for.

"We don't plan on paying it," says Minnich, who has been speaking to ACLU head Vic Walczak about the bill. "We're looking to fight this with everything that we have."

It wouldn't be the first time the ACLU has fought the city's billing practices. The city used to frequently charge groups for the cost of providing security at demonstrations, but in 2003, the Merton Center was one of three plaintiffs who sued the city over the practice. "The ACLU said city officials violated the First Amendment by arbitrarily requiring security fees and other red tape on a case-by-case basis," read an Associated Press account in 2006. "Groups the city supposedly favored, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, weren't required to pay the fees."

The case was settled in 2006; until that point, Walczak says, charging these fees was a "matter of course for a long time." But as part of the settlement, the city revised its policies so that "groups engaged in First Amendment activities did not have to pay police costs," Walczak says.

Walczak says that earlier today he called the city Law Department to ask, "Can we make this go away or are we going to have to go to court?" He hasn't yet heard back -- and city officials did not return a call from City Paper. But Walczak says he is "thinking -- no, hoping" that the bill was sent in error by someone who doesn't understand the rules.

If not, another legal battle could be on the horizon.

"The Merton Center is not paying this," says Walczak. "That's for sure. We'll go to court before they pay this."

 

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