Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Judge: City Not Harassing Seeds of Peace

Federal Judge Gary Lancaster ruled against a protest support group that claimed it was being harassed by Pittsburgh police. Seeds of Peace provides food to protesters who are “exercising their right to free speech.” The Nebraska based organization drives a reconfigured school bus into an area where protesters are gathering and then sets up a mobile kitchen to distribute free meals. For a time after it arrived in Pittsburgh last week the bus was parked on a residential street in Polish Hill but Pittsburgh police sighted it for blocking traffic and had it towed. Testimony from the officer involved claims none of the Seeds of Peace members near the bus at the time were able to find keys or move the bus. One member testified that they were not given the chance and the keys were inside the bus. Instead they had to wait for the person whose name was on the registration. The bus was eventually towed and the group paid more than $200 to get it out of the pound.

The group then parked on private land in Lawrenceville. They had permission from the lessee and a man who was subletting the property but not from the owner. That sub lessee testified that police came to the property a day later and asked to search for weapons. An officer involved says they thought people might be illegally living on the property that among other thing is used to store old bricks and used steel. He says police have a heightened awareness to that type of activity and material in the lead up to the G20 Pittsburgh Summit. The following day the landowner met with police, a building inspector and the leaseholder and decided the bus had to leave. The lawyers for the plaintiffs hinted that the city intimidated the landowner with the threat of inspections and fines.

Seeds of change once again packed up their belongings and took the bus to a third location but were stopped by police as they were just yards away from pulling into the parking lot that they thought they had permission to use. An ACLU legal observer testified that several squad cars and officers quickly arrived and went over nearly every imaginable state and city law that could govern vehicle operations, and interstate commerce including the need for a special license to operate a bus. Eventually the landowner called and asked Seeds of Change to leave by noon Tuesday. He reportedly told them neighbors had asked him to evict the group because the number of police in their neighborhood concerned them.

The judge found that the plaintiff’s constitutional rights were not violated and that even though they intend to help others express their rights of free speech it does not mean that they can ignore local zoning and traffic laws. The denial of injunctive relief does not prohibit the plaintiffs from seeking monetary damages at a later date. The Group moved the bus to Trinity Lutheran Church on the north side. An ACLU of Pennsylvania web site reports, "A few hours after parking the buses at the Northside location, approximately 25 police officers surrounded the parking lot where the buses were parked but left after about half an hour."

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