Free Speech and Olympic Torch: Seeking Answers from the City

Apr 10, 2008

Page Media

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California has serious concerns about the city's decision to change the route of the Olympic torch relay in an apparent attempt to avoid protestors. On April 10, the day after relay, we filed a request under the Sunshine Ordinance for records on the city's relay route planning and crowd control policies.

Leading up to the torch relay, we worked to guarantee that First Amendment rights and the principles of open government would be respected by the city. We filed Sunshine Ordinance requests on March 13 with the Mayor's Office and the San Francisco Police Department (S.F.P.D.). The city later released a planned torch route and assured us that people would not be discriminated against based on the content of their message and that other First Amendment activities would not be restricted.

April 10 Sunshine Ordinance Request:  Seeking Answers

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a request April 10 under the Sunshine Ordinance with the San Francisco Mayor's Office and S.F.P.D. seeking records relating to the Olympic torch relay.  The letter, which expressed disappointment in the way the city handled the event, asked for information regarding the planning around the relay route and enforcement actions at Justin Herman Plaza, the site originally planned for the closing ceremonies.

The letter notes that, while neither the public nor the ACLU Foundation of Northern California was notified about a route change, there were no visible signs at 8 a.m., April 9, that preparations were being made for half of the publicly announced route north of Lombard and Embarcadero.

Also, even though the S.F.P.D. made repeated assurances that it would not discriminate against people based on their message, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California witnessed police ordering protestors carrying Tibetan flags or signs to leave Justin Herman Plaza.

ACLU Foundation of Northern California's Advocacy Prior to Relay

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a Public Records Act request on March 13 with the Mayor's Office and the S.F.P.D. seeking information about the route and the procedures the city intended to follow during public demonstrations expected to surround the event.

The Mayor's Office responded to the ACLU Foundation of Northern California's Public Records Act request in a March 26 letter, which indicated that the city did not plan to restrict the activity of protestors. A March 27 letter from SFPD was nearly identical to that provided by the Mayor's Office. The letter stated that "the public is welcome to line the sidewalks along the torch relay route and to attend the opening and closing ceremonies."

Neither letter, however, disclosed the planned route for the relay, only the sites of the opening and closing ceremonies. The ACLU Foundation of Northern California continued to urge the city to finalize and make public the details of the route as soon as possible so that everyone had sufficient time to prepare and plan for the event, and to avoid unnecessary confusion in the days surrounding this event.  The planned route was disclosed in an April 1 SFPD press release.

What You Should Know About Your First Amendment Rights

The free speech guarantees of the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution apply to all forms of expressive activity and demonstrations, including rallies and marches; and picketing, leafleting, and petitioning. The ACLU Foundation of Northern California has developed a guide on how constitutional principles apply to specific situations and suggests arguments that can be used (in court or directly with the police or city officials) to maximize the scope of these activities.

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