The Fight for the Great Lawn of Central Park

  • Background

    A legal battle waged by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund resulted in a settlement in which New York City must establish a constitutionally valid permitting scheme for protests in Central Park. It must also undertake a feasibility study into the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn and what efforts can be undertaken to maximize the availability of the lawn for large events including rallies and demonstrations. 

    The settlement also requires the city to pay damages to civil rights and anti-war organizations for discriminatorily denying them the right to hold a demonstration on the Great Lawn during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. It also requires the City to pay attorneys fees and costs for the litigation.


    The litigation was originally brought in advance of the Republican National Convention (RNC) by the Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJ), a Washington DC-based civil rights and legal organization, on behalf of  the National Council of Arab Americans (NCA) and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), who sought to hold a demonstration in support of civil rights and civil liberties including the targeted Arab and Muslim community. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the opening of the RNC and was to be held on August 28, the 41st anniversary of Dr. King’s historic March on Washington, but was blocked by the City. Other organizations had also been denied permits to stage protest rallies in the Great Lawn during this period.

    After the Republican National Convention concluded, the NCA and the ANSWER Coalition determined that they would continue the litigation in order to block the effort of Mayor Bloomberg and wealthy and corporate backers to privatize Central Park, including the Great Lawn, and make it off limits to mass political assembly, while at the same time allowing corporate-sponsored, politically approved events.

    This three-year long litigation has been hard-fought, and included depositions of top city officials as well as successful obtainment of more than 10,000 pages of critical documents including internal emails and other materials. These documents proved the falsity of the City’s representations as to the basis of the denials for protest permits in 2004. They also revealed that Mayor Bloomberg and his office were directly involved in political decision-making as to who should have access to the Great Lawn.

    “The lawsuit and today’s settlement successfully challenges the brazenly unconstitutional efforts to bar protests from the Great Lawn,” states Carl Messineo, a co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice. “The Bloomberg administration, along with the NYC Parks Department, took concerted actions to illegally block mass assembly protest during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. The Arab-American community and anti-war protestors were barred from the use of Central Park’s Great Lawn for mass assembly protests.” he continued.

    The litigation filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, National Council of Arab Americans and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition v. The City of New York City,, 04-CV-6602 (WHP) has far reaching consequences not only for New York but for Free Speech rights in cities throughout the country.

    “The lawsuit is not merely about the use of the Great Lawn of Central Park. It serves as an historic challenge to the privatization of public space and the ability of corporations to “purchase” our fundamental rights,” states Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the PCJ. “Mayor Bloomberg wanted to ban mass assembly protest from Manhattan during the Convention and forever after. The Great Lawn, with 13 acres of open space, has historically been used for the largest mass assembly events in NYC. We assert that if New York’s Great Lawn can be closed off to political assembly and protest, it will establish a precedent that will be replicated nationwide. There will be no parkland that will be safe for the continued use of the Free Speech rights of the people,” Verheyden-Hilliard emphasized.

    While New York barred the use of the Great Lawn for political protests against policies of the Bush Administration, the Great Lawn has been the site of many large gatherings in recent years including an American Online-sponsored rock concert by the Dave Mathews Band that promoted an AOL product, the Metropolitan Opera, the Philharmonic Orchestra, and other international celebrations and mass gatherings. The City denied the permits to the NCA and A.N.S.W.E.R. on the basis that the presence in Central Park of those intending to gather for civil rights would “damage the grass.”

    Through this agreement, NCA and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition retain their right to continue a legal challenge to any resulting regulations following the feasibility study that are not constitutionally sound. The City is obligated to provide notice to the organizations regarding the feasibility study and any regulatory changes. The organizations are each receiving $25,000 for the deprivation of the right to hold a protest on August 28, 2004. The City is also paying attorneys' fees and costs for the three year long litigation in the amount of $501,658.47.

  • Legal Information

    National Council of Arab Americans and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition v. The City of New York City,
    United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

    The Partnership for Civil Justice has announced today the filing in Court of a landmark settlement agreement with the City of New York that strikes down key provisions of controversial and unconstitutional regulations aimed at restricting access to the Great Lawn of Central Park.

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  • Press Coverage

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

    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.

    A Perfect Lawn, Mowed and Muted

    A court battle over the right to demonstrate on Central Park's Great Lawn has underscored an astounding fact. In the heart of the nation's largest and arguably most opinionated city, there is no place to hold a large rally.

    City Faces Trial for Blocking Protests on Central Park Lawn

    A battle over whether the Great Lawn in Central Park is open to political protesters as well as opera is headed to a jury trial.

    In Court Papers, A Political Note On '04 Protests

    When city officials denied demonstrators access to the Great Lawn in Central Park during the 2004 Republican National Convention, political advocates and ordinary New Yorkers accused Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of squelching demonstrations that could embarrass fellow Republicans during their gathering.
  • Multimedia

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