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Harrisburg settles with ACLU over conditions for climate event

  • Rachel McDevitt
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg to demand action on climate change on Friday, September 20, 2019.

Rachel McDevitt / WITF

Demonstrators gather on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg to demand action on climate change on Friday, September 20, 2019.

The city of Harrisburg will have to change its permit process for groups planning protests and other events as part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and environmental groups.

Better Path Coalition and the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued Harrisburg in April. The federal lawsuit was filed over what they say was a lack of transparent standards and fixed permit fees as the group tried to organize a climate action march in June.

Under the interim settlement, the city has 90 days to update its rule for permitting public events in parks and develop a rule to permit demonstrations on city streets.

Harrisburg is also immediately granting permits for the Pennsylvania Climate Convergence to go forward on June 11-13 and dropping most of its original conditions. They included reimbursement to the city for parking fees lost due to a planned march on June 12, payment for police presence, and that the coalition notify businesses and residents of its plans.

Better Path co-founder Karen Feridun said the group is thrilled they can go forward with the festival as planned and that the city will have to make the requirements for holding such an event clear. She said trying to get consistent answers over months of planning was a “nightmare.”

“We’re really happy to come to this settlement and hope that the process going forward is a whole lot more equitable than it was when we went through it,” Feridun said.

Harrisburg Solicitor Neil Grover argued the city’s permit process is transparent. He said multiple city offices will work with applicants to get the right permits.

“We consider this a theoretical argument and a theoretical complaint versus a real complaint,” Grover said.

Harrisburg’s law on park permits now gives flexibility to administrators to determine what’s needed. It does not have an ordinance for demonstrating in city streets.

Grover said it makes sense to require simpler forms for smaller events, like a family reunion. He said large events need more complicated forms, because they require more resources.

Steve Loney, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU, said Harrisburg’s variable fees based on crowd size can hinder First Amendment rights.

“It ends up charging groups more if their message is something that is either so popular it’s going to bring people out or so unpopular it’s going to bring people out,” he said.

Loney said it’s especially important that, as the state capital, Harrisburg has a clear process for the use of public spaces.

“Where you don’t have a transparent system, where you don’t have well-defined standards, the potential for abuse is there and that’s enough to create serious First Amendment problems,” he said.

The Pennsylvania climate Convergence is billed as a “peaceful gathering to demand urgent legislative and administrative action on climate.”

Organizers are calling for the phaseout of greenhouse gas production and a just transition to renewable energy for those most affected by the fossil fuel and petrochemical economy.

The event is scheduled to kick off with a festival June 11, followed by a march June 12 and a day of action at the state capitol building June 13.

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