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Groups say Central Park’s lawn may be opened to big rallies

Published by The Associated Press on January 8, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — Central Park’s Great Lawn might again be used for large public demonstrations rather than solely for events staged with help from the wealthy or corporations, lawyers for two civil rights groups said after a settlement with the city was announced Tuesday.

“It’s a hands-down total and complete victory,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm that sued on behalf of the National Council of Arab Americans and the Act Now to Stop War & End Racism Coalition.

She said the lawn, which had long hosted large public assemblies on its 13 acres, was limited to city-approved events such as annual free performances by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic and a concert by the Dave Matthews Band in September 2003.

“The lawsuit is not merely about the use of the Great Lawn of Central Park,” she said. “It serves as an historic challenge to the privatization of public space and the ability of corporations to purchase our fundamental rights.”

The groups accused the city of allowing use of the lawn, which includes eight softball fields, in a discriminatory fashion after they were denied a permit to engage in a civil rights rally just before the Republican National Convention in 2004.

The city began limiting access for large groups to the lawn after spending $18.2 million in the mid-1990s to restore the area.

The deal announced Tuesday calls for the city to pay for an independent study to decide if the current 50,000-person limit and other restrictions can be modified so that large events can be held on the lawn without causing physical damage to the park or interrupting recreation.

During the study, the maximum number of people allowed on the lawn will be raised to 75,000.

The deal also requires the city to pay $25,000 in damages to each of the groups and the costs of litigation.

The city’s law office said it wanted to put the dispute behind it rather than go through a long legal battle and the expense of a trial.

“The city believes that its current regulations regarding use of the Great Lawn are lawful and proper and that the parks department properly denied a permit to the two plaintiff organizations in 2004,” a city law office release said.

City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe said the department has “consistently made appropriate decisions to protect the Great Lawn’s primary function, which is to provide high-quality green space for active and passive recreation as well as to accommodate cultural and political events.”

The deal came after a federal judge last year said city regulations addressed legitimate concerns by letting the city reject events that can harm the environment or landscape, be unsuitable for the area, overlap previously scheduled events or block the enjoyment of the park by others.

Yet, the judge said there were disputed issues of fact regarding why the city rejected requests for some permits but accepted others. The judge said there was evidence supporting the groups’ claim that the city favored other groups.

The National Council of Arab Americans provides legal defense, education programs and other services to Arab Americans nationwide. The ANSWER Coalition describes itself as a grassroots group that stages meetings, protests and educational activities opposing war and racism.

In requesting a permit, the groups in January 2004 told the city they planned to organize a 75,000-person rally on Aug. 28, 2004, to protest the GOP convention and to commemorate the anniversary of a 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

In June 2004, the parks department denied the permit request. The city later told the groups that the proposed event would cause significant damage to the park.