Wednesday, August 25, 2004

NEW YORK — An estimated 250,000 protesters yesterday were denied access to the grassy expanse of Central Park by a state Supreme Court judge, leaving the Aug. 29 marchers with a final destination of Seventh Avenue outside Madison Square Garden.

State Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Silbermann turned down the legal plea from the demonstration’s organizer, United for Peace and Justice, saying that the group was “guilty of inexcusable and inequitable delay” for filing a lawsuit last week with less than two weeks before the planned event.

United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella group for more than 800 like-minded enterprises, sued the city last week after backing out of a July 21 agreement with the city to hold the rally on a three-mile stretch of the West Side Highway. The group claimed that, after further investigation, staging the event there would be prohibitively expensive.

The complaint claimed that the city violated the state constitution by allowing cultural events such as concerts but failed to accommodate a political gathering. The city parks department said that the event, to be held on three sections of lush grass in Central Park, would ruin the park’s lawn. Event planners anticipate 250,000 protesters during the event.

Justice Silbermann said in her 13-page ruling that, “at this juncture, however, plaintiff simply cannot be heard to bring a constitutional challenge to a march-and-rally plan it publicly and voluntarily agreed to on July 21, 2004 — more than one month ago. Indeed, even after plaintiff reneged on that agreement on August 10, 2004, it waited an additional week to bring suit, unnecessarily prejudicing defendants.”

United for Peace and Justice promised that the rally will still take place, immediately posting to its Web site a message.

“We are marching!” the note reads at “We are very disappointed in the ruling today, denying our request to rally in Central Park. But make no mistake: Our August 29 protest march is still happening! We have an agreement with the city for a legal, peaceful march past Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican Convention, and we are negotiating with the New York Police Department for a safe, peaceful, and orderly closure of the day’s events.”

Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the group’s lead counsel, mocked the judge’s opinion during a press conference after the ruling.

“In her opinion, having a rally on the West Side Highway is just the same as having a rally in Central Park,” he said. “She may be the only New Yorker who can’t tell the difference between the West Side Highway and Central Park.”

The permit for the march has not yet been issued, a lawyer for the city said yesterday, but will be after the specifics of how to end the event are worked out. It’s more than likely the rally will end at Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue.

“We will issue a permit we negotiated with them in good faith,” said Gail Donoghue, a lawyer with the New York City counsel’s office. “We just have to work out some more of the details and figure out an appropriate way to disperse the crowd.”

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the department is still offering an alternative location for a rally. The department met with the group twice yesterday.

“While we continue to believe that the West Street rally site is the best location,” the commissioner said, “this morning, we suggested to UFPJ a rally site on Houston Street — a proposal they rejected, saying that, if they lost in court, they would give up any plan for a rally. We will continue to meet with UFPJ to make final arrangements for a successful and orderly event.”

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