Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005

Turning tables, Parks now says permit a must to sign cards

By Lincoln Anderson

The Parks Department’s requiring a local organization to get a permit to do Saturday postcard-signing campaigns in Tompkins Sq. Park has East Villagers and free speech advocates up in arms. But the department says it’s only following normal procedure.

Periodically over the last year, the East Village Community Coalition has set up a small table and easel near the park’s Ninth St. and Avenue A entrance at which people are asked to sign postcards to Mayor Bloomberg, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and Robert Tierney, chairperson of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The postcards call for the immediate landmarking of the old P.S. 64 building on E. Ninth St. near Avenue B, where developer Gregg Singer hopes to build a dormitory tower. The table holds literature relating to the campaign and the easel shows a rendering of the dreaded dormitory.

According to Michael Rosen, an E.V.C.C. founder and leader, last year, Parks officials told them what they were doing was fine but that they had to be outside the park fence, the sidewalk around which is still Parks property. This spring, however, Rosen said, Elaine Crowley, who has been supervisor for Manhattan Parks District 3 for the past year, told them they now need a permit.

Parks technically requires a permit for events with 20 or more people in a park, though this regulation is not always enforced.

However, Rosen noted, “We never have 20 people standing there at one time. But they said if we had 20 postcards signed by 20 different individuals at the end of the day, we need a permit.”

Rosen said 100 to 200 people typically sign E.V.C.C.’s postcards on a given Saturday. They have been asked to keep their table outside the park fence on Avenue A, midway between Eighth and Ninth Sts.

Rosen said they did apply for a permit, at a cost of $25, and that, in their case, a permit is good for not just one Saturday, but a month of Saturdays. But the whole process is burdensome and seems heavy-handed on Parks’s part, in their opinion.

At Community Board 3’s May 19 Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Waterfront Committee meeting, Parks’s Crowley stated that one permit would be issued to E.V.C.C. to cover the remaining Saturdays in May, as well as in June.

Councilmember Margarita Lopez, whose district includes Tompkins Sq., said she found the permit requirement outrageous.

“I will be behind Michael [Rosen] on that,” Lopez said. “It’s just absurd that we continue to erode our constitutional rights in that way. Where in the Constitution does it say you need a permit to sign a petition? Postcard, petition, whatever you say — that’s political organizing.”

Lopez recalled how in 1997 she was gathering petition signatures in the Union Sq. Greemarket for her first Council run, when the market’s manager told her she had to stop it.

“I said, ‘You and who else are going to get me out?’ ” she said. “He said he was going to get the police to throw me out. I said, ‘Be my guest.’ ”

Lopez said Norman Siegel, then head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, sued the city at about the same time over a similar situation regarding petition gathering and won.

“When are we going to learn?” Lopez said. “I guess the Parks Department is looking for another lawsuit. I believe that you have the right to petition anywhere — on public property.”

Michael Farrin, a Democratic state committeeman and co-president of Coalition for a District Alternative, also said he supports E.V.C.C.’s right to gather postcard signatures without a permit.

“Certainly, that reading of the regulation —that 20 people over hours meets the threshold for requiring a permit — is indefensible,” he said. Farrin said his reading of the permit regulation’s intent is that it’s for large gatherings. “It seems to be a breach of our First Amendment rights,” he said for Parks to use the permit regulation otherwise. “It seems Parks is too focused on parks as bucolic retreats and not on their function as a town square,” he added.

Part of Farrin and CoDA’s concern is that Parks’s permit push could affect signature gathering to put candidates on the ballot.

“I’m worried that what they’re doing to Michael Rosen could extend to strolling petitioners,” Farrin noted. However, in the past Parks has not asked CoDA to get a permit, even though CoDA does set up a table on Avenue A outside the park before elections to collect signatures. Farrin said in the past Parks workers have told them they can’t tape posters to the park fence, but that that’s been about the extent of any oversight they’ve faced.

However, Bill Castro, Parks Manhattan borough commissioner, said the real issue isn’t that 20 people are signing postcards at E.V.C.C.’s table — but the table itself.

“The only reason we would require a permit is if they set up a structure, such as a table,” he said. Castro noted there is a feeding program that also operates near where E.V.C.C. has its table, so it’s really a matter of coordinating the space’s use. “We want to make sure where everybody is,” he said, “to make sure there’s a spot for everybody.

Castro added he would have Park district manager Crowley “sit down with [E.V.C.C.] and work something out. I’m going to ask her to reach out to them today,” he told The Villager on May 24.

Carli Smith, a Parks spokesperson, added: “We have asked this group, the Coalition, that they seek a permit for their efforts because they’re using a table. [The permit] establishes them at a location. It’s to save the location and avoid a conflict or confusion. So it’s beneficial to both parties. If they haven’t established a location and they’d rather be walking around with clipboards, that’s fine, they’d don’t need a permit.”

As The Villager went to press on May 31, C.B. 3’s full board was voting on its Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Waterfront Committee’s May 19 resolution on permit issues for use of tables for literature on sidewalks outside parks. The resolution, passed unanimously by the committee, reads:

WHEREAS, residents of the Lower East Side have historically and traditionally engaged in First Amendment activities, including, but not limited to, engagement in state political processes necessary to place candidates on the ballot and to encourage residents to vote, and to participate in organizing around various social issues that affect members of the community, and they have particularly engaged in these activities in and around the Tompkins Sq. Park area;

WHEREAS, C.B. 3 encourages community members to be engaged in social and political issues;

WHEREAS, C.B. 3 and many members of the community live here precisely because of the engaged character of the community;

WHEREAS, C.B. 3 believes in protecting First Amendment rights of its residents;

WHEREAS, C.B. 3 believes that Parks regulations requiring a permit for a “setup” should not be interpreted as a small table in and around Tompkins Sq. Park which does not obstruct pedestrians;

WHEREAS, C.B. 3 understands that the Department of Parks is a busy, overworked and understaffed agency and should focus on quality of life issues that affect the members of the community, such as having parks open and well maintained and safe;

WHEREAS, the Parks Department’s sudden decision to interpret and enforce tabling as an activity that requires a permit without discussion or communication with the community, including C.B. 3; and

WHEREAS C.B. 3 supports community-based planning and believes that the community board is the structure through which the community can have a voice in decision making;

THEREFORE, C.B. 3 believes the Parks Department’s restrictions requiring a permit and charging for this First Amendment activity of tabling on the sidewalks around parks are uncalled for and against community wishes and constitutional rights.

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