Updated April 27, 2004








NY Case Tests Free Speech, Assembly Rights

NY Case Tests Free Speech, Assembly Rights

Friends, Family Protesting Murder Of Peace Activist Rachel Corrie Are Arrested, Charged With Crime


By John Tiffany


Even in death, the Rachel Corrie (inset) saga continues. At a New York branch of Israel’s Bank Leumi, 18 protesters locked together as a human barricade across Fifth Avenue on March 27, 2003. The demonstrators civil disobedience protested the death of peace activist Corrie at the hands of a bulldozer-driving member of the Israeli military. In addition, they were protesting the war on Iraq.

Sixteen of the demonstrators were subsequently charged with “obstruction of government administration.”

And in another outrage, the New York City district attorney defined protest speech as “criminal,” urging jail time for activists who have a history of dissent.

Sentencing was postponed on April 19 with a motion to set aside their “guilty” verdict. The non-violent “New York 16,” who were to be sentenced that morning in Manhattan Criminal Court, still face possible jail time on the recommendation of the DA’s office.

The case is being closely watched by civil libertarians because of its shocking implications for free speech and assembly and because it will set a precedent for New York City’s treatment of protesters at the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC).

Sentencing was delayed until May 12, pending review of “new” evidence, and evaluation of the fact that the DA relied on dismissed or unsubstantiated charges in his jail recommendation.

The defendants are seeking to learn the reason that the New York State Supreme Court granted the DA’s unusual request to unseal some defendants’ records. The DA made his sentencing recommendation based on the existence of the sealed cases. But most of these had been dismissed, and almost none of them involved criminal charges.

Said civil liberties attorney Ron Kuby: “The DA’s use of secret hearings and the dredging up of dismissed cases as bases to impose a jail sentence are designed to deter activists from demonstrating at the RNC this summer. The overcharging and criminalization of non-violent protest is an unlawful attempt to deter future protest. It tells RNC protesters: ‘Welcome to New York; now leave, with a criminal record.’ ”

The defendants also stated that the DA failed to turn over video evidence to the defense. They asserted additionally that the DA failed to notify defendants or even explain his petition to the New York State Supreme Court to open the sealed records.

Council Member Annabel Palma of the Bronx stated: “We live in a nation that at this moment is sending young men and women to fight and die, saying we protect basic freedoms around the world. But here in this country, the minute you exercise this freedom, you’re arrested, convicted and possibly sent to jail.”

“The charge of ‘obstruction of governmental administration’ was resurrected to prosecute protesters as criminals under Mayor Giuliani,” said defendant Ora Wise. “It was part of an overt campaign to silence protest.”