Occupy Chicago Appeal Will Review City Ordinance’s Limits on Free Speech

By: Sharlyn Grace

In October 2011, over 300 people associated with Occupy Chicago were arrested and charged with violating the City of Chicago ordinance that barred them from being in Grant Park between 11:00pm and 6:00am. Many of those arrested decided to pay their fines or perform community service, but 92 defendants decided to fight back. Those activists, represented by People’s Law Office and other National Lawyers Guild attorneys and legal workers, challenged the ordinance’s restrictions on free speech and assembly.

Nearly one year later, in September of 2012, a municipal judge agreed with Occupy Chicago—declaring the ordinance’s restrictions on speech unconstitutional under both the U.S. and Illinois constitutions. The judge found that the ordinance violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution both on its face (meaning its blanket restriction on speech during those hours was broader than required by the City’s justifications) and as applied to the Occupy Chicago defendants (meaning the ordinance was enforced selectively based on the content of Occupy’s message). The court also found that the ordinance violated the Illinois Constitution’s right to free assembly. The ruling dismissed the charges against Occupy Chicago participants and invalidated the ordinance. For more details on the judge’s decision dismissing all of the charges, see our article immediately following the decision.

The trial judge’s decision was a huge victory, but it is not the end of the story. Unable to admit its error in arresting the hundreds of peaceful participants for a park hours violation that the City had previously waived for other groups (and failed to enforce when a crowd was celebrating Obama’s victory in 2008), the City is appealing in hopes of overturning the lower court’s order. Arrests for ordinance violations are a crucial tactic in Mayor Emanuel’s efforts to silence dissent in Chicago, allowing the Chicago Police to arrest (or threaten to arrest) demonstrators whose message and presence criticize the Mayor’s corporate priorities. The invalidity of these arrests has, accordingly, been a blow to Emanuel’s authority. On May 8, the City filed its brief in the Appellate Court, arguing that the charges should be reinstated.

The City’s brief primarily argues that the trial court judge’s analysis of the constitutional issues was incorrect. The City attorneys argue that: 1) closing the parks overnight is not more restrictive than necessary to meet the City’s interests in maintaining the park and limiting opportunities for crime; 2) there is no pattern of selective enforcement because there are insufficient incidents to detect a pattern and because the Obama election crowd was different; 3) the trial court made procedural errors that should invalidate his ruling.

People’s Law Office and the other NLG attorneys representing the activists have begun working on a response to the City’s arguments, and will continue fighting to ensure that activists in Chicago are able to access the public spaces of our city in the ongoing struggles for social justice—without fear of criminal punishment.

City’s Brief on Appeal – May 8, 2013

Decision Ruling in Favor of Occupy Chicago – September 27, 2012

Occupy Chicago Reply to City – February 10, 2012

Occupy Chicago Motion to Dismiss – November 4, 2011

To learn more about the work of People’s Law Office in defending dissent, visit the Protest and Free Speech page on this site.