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Settlement on Use of Central Park’s Great Lawn

Reprinted from New York Times. Read the story here.
January 8, 2008

After three years of contentious litigation, the New York City Parks Department agreed Tuesday to back away from a controversial regulation to limit public events on the Great Lawn, in the heart of Central Park, to 50,000 people. The decision to rescind the rule — put in place, the city said, to protect the lawn and used in an early form to deny permits to antiwar demonstrators — was hailed by its critics as a victory for the First Amendment and for the public use of public land.

“It’s an enormous victory for New Yorkers and for everyone who comes to New York City,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer for the Partnership for Civil Justice, which had challenged the regulation. “Not only for their free-speech rights, but for their rights to public space that belongs to the people.”

Enforcement of the rule was temporarily set aside as part of a settlement agreement with two antiwar groups that Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard’s group represents and that sued the city after they were denied a permit to hold a demonstration on the lawn in advance of the Republican National Convention in 2004. While the rule was not formally adopted until December 2005, the city had an informal policy of protecting the lawn in place since 1997, officials said, when it spent $18.2 million to restore the 13-acre area.

Under the agreement, which staved off a looming federal trial, the city will now conduct a study to determine “the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn for large events.” Officials said that current regulations governing the lawn would remain in effect while the study is conducted, except that the maximum number of attendees permitted on the lawn will be up to 75,000 people.

“We believe that the settlement of this matter is in the city’s best interests,” said Michael A. Cardozo, the city’s Corporation Counsel. “The study will allow the Parks Department to obtain a recommendation that will help it determine whether, and to what extent, the Great Lawn can accommodate large concerts and rallies without significantly damaging the lawn or impeding its day-to-day use for softball and other recreational activities.”

When the regulation was officially—and quietly—established, city officials said that only six events with 5,000 to 50,000 spectators would be permitted each year on the lawn in order to protect its fragile 13 acres of Kentucky bluegrass. Of those six event permits, four were reserved for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, whose musical events drew “passive” crowds, officials said, which did little damage to the lawn.

The move to limit the gatherings was met at once with spirited criticism from groups who questioned the constitutionality of the restrictions and who argued that the possibility of damage to the lawn was no more than a pretext to mute political action. There were those who said the city was seeking to prevent demonstrations against the Iraq war and those of a more nostalgic bent who could remember a time when the Great Lawn was used for Simon and Garfunkel concerts and large-scale papal masses.

Before the regulation was adopted, there were no explicit limits on the number of people allowed to gather on the lawn, nor on the number of gatherings held there. Permission to assemble was granted on a case-by-case basis with any group of more than 20 requiring a permit.

The lawsuit which led to the agreement was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan by the National Council of Arab Americans and the Answer Coalition, which applied for and were denied permission to stage a rally on the Great Lawn on Aug. 28, 2004, before the Republican gathering in New York. The judge presiding in the case, William H. Pauley III, ruled in March that the city was constitutionally permitted to limit events on the lawn to protect it from damage but had to defend itself against the specific charge of violating the two groups’ First Amendment rights by denying them permission to march.

The study, which will be undertaken at the city’s expense, will be conducted by an independent committee, including at least three experts in “turf management” and one expert in crowd control, the settlement agreement says. Upon completion, its report will be sent to the parks commissioner who will then adopt or not adopt its recommendations.

Should the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit be unsatisfied with the city’s response to the study, the settlement agreement affords them the right to reopen the case. The agreement also requires the city to pay each of the groups $25,000 and reimburse them for $500,000 in attorneys’ costs and fees.

“The Parks 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,” said Adrian Benepe, the commissioner of parks and recreation. “We welcome the opportunity for further study.”