NYPD lawyer quells free speech dispute

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Officers confiscated campaign and other material prior to June 21 Chin, de Blasio town hall


  • Council Member Margaret Chin and Mayor Bill de Blasio at the June 21 town hall meeting at the Chinatown YMCA/University Settlement. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.


A brewing First Amendment dispute involving the NYPD could be easing, according to the civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who said he has received assurances from a department lawyer that police would not be seizing political literature at public events.

Controversy erupted last month when police confiscated political flyers and other campaign material prior to a town hall meeting co-hosted by Council Member Margaret Chin and attended by Mayor de Blasio.

Siegel and others had denounced the actions, and an opponent of Chin’s filed a federal criminal complaint alleging that the confiscation of his campaign literature violated his right to free speech. Another attorney filed paperwork suggesting he would sue Chin on behalf of the president of the Downtown Independent Democratic club, Jeanne Wilcke, who attended the event and was critical of the police’s action.

But Siegel on Tuesday said he had a “positive” conversation with the NYPD lawyer earlier in the day. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the practice of confiscating political material at public meetings will not continue,” he said. “It seems they are addressing the problem.”

According to several people who attended the June 21 event, in Chin’s district, uniformed and plainclothes NYPD personnel at a security tent riffled through would-be attendees’ belongings and seized political flyers, banners and signs critical of either Chin or de Blasio or that supported opposition candidates before they allowed people into the YMCA on Bowery.

Siegel said police officials knew who within the department had given the directive for the searches and confiscations. Siegel was given that person’s rank and but not his or her name.

Siegel said the department lawyer was cautious during the pair’s phone conversation, likely because of possible litigation against the city.

In letters sent to de Blasio and police Commissioner James O’Neill earlier this month, Siegel said “Such actions by state actors raise serious constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

In the July 8 letters, Siegel said the confiscations raised several questions, including whether officials were aware of the confiscations; what the rationale might have been; whether an investigation was underway; and which steps would be taken “to ensure that the First and Fourth Amendment rights of the public are respected.”

Siegel, a former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he had never encountered a similar instance of police seizing political material. He said he would continue to monitor police activity at similar events.

But Peter Gleason, the attorney who filed a notice of claim on behalf of Wilcke, the Downtown Independent Democratic club president, said that police are being used as “pawns.” Gleason, a former NYPD officer, said police would not act to confiscate political material unless directed.

“I know full well how the police are in many cases relegated to be the servant of these public officials,” he said. “Our contention is that at the behest of Council Member Chin, the police were instructed to take away literature critical of Chin.”

The police, Gleason said, “don’t do anything unless they’re instructed to do so.”

Chin’s chief of staff, Paul Leonard, though, dismissed what he said were “unfounded allegations,” saying that Council members do not issue directives to police or have oversight of security. He also noted that pro-Chin campaign literature was also seized at the event.

City officials, including from the mayor’s office, did not respond to inquiries.

Gleason said he would encourage Wilcke to sue unless Chin apologizes for what took place.

“My view is that if Margaret Chin would apologize to the residents of lower Manhattan for being an instrumentality of violating residents’ rights to free speech, then we can put this matter to bed,” he said.

In late June, a challenger to Chin’s District 1 City Council seat filed a federal criminal complaint alleging that the confiscation of his campaign literature violated his right to free speech. In his complaint, Aaron Foldenauer said that uniformed and plainclothes NYPD personnel at the security tent seized political material he and his team had been handing out prior to the town hall. He said that representatives from other organizations, including the National Mobilization against SweatShops, Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, and opponents of the Real Estate Board of New York, were also outside the YMCA passing out material critical of Chin and de Blasio. Those flyers were also taken from people entering the event.

Although Foldenauer noted that flyers and literature supportive of Chin were also confiscated, that amounted to a “smokescreen” since, once inside the venue, members of Chin’s staff were passing out Chin’s spring newsletter to the community and other material.

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