A white supremacist group asked a panel of federal judges Tuesday to throw out the city of York, Pennsylvania’s public-assembly ordinance, saying it violates the right to free-speech by putting an unfair burden on some groups.
Five members of the Mississippi-based Nationalist Movement held a rally in the city on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2003. Although it eventually was exempted from the fee, the group sued over the requirement that groups pay for liability insurance, police protection and permit fees.
“You cannot charge for free speech. It’s free,” Richard Barrett, an attorney from the Jackson, Miss., area who represents the group, told the three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Don’t make them pay for their podium or make them bear their own cross.”
The Nationalist Movement said the rally was meant to honor Henry Schaad, a white police officer slain during the city’s race riots in 1969, and protest Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Days before the rally, a federal judge ordered that it should proceed after the group and the city came to an agreement on police protection and electricity.
But the group continued to press forward with its lawsuit, filed in October 2002.
That prompted skeptical questions from the judges Tuesday, several of whom asked whether the case should be moot because the group was not charged a fee and has not been denied.
“You never had to get a permit and you had your event for $1,” Judge Maryanne Trump Barry told Barrett, waving her hands at one point.
She also chided him for making hypothetical arguments.
“There’s nothing that could prevent me from being the Queen of England, if my father had been king,” Barry said. “Don’t speculate on things that could happen.”
The judges pressed James D. Young, an attorney representing the city, over parts of the ordinance they thought were confusing, including whether an application fee could be waived for those who could not afford it. Young said it could.
The judges, who did not indicate when they would rule, also said there was confusion over what exactly it meant for a group to assume liability for a demonstration.
“The city has to prepare for the speeches that are going to occur,” Barry said.
Young responded that his interpretation was a basic rule he learned as a child: Leave a place just as it was when you got there.
White supremacist groups started targeting York after police arrested nine white men, including then-Mayor Charlie Robertson, in 2001 for the shooting of a black woman during race riots in 1969. Lillie Belle Allen, 27, of Aiken, S.C., was killed days after Schaad was shot to death.
Jurors eventually convicted Robert Messersmith and Gregory Neff of second-degree murder in Allen’s slaying. Robertson, a city police officer at the time, was acquitted of charges that he incited a group of whites to violence against blacks.
Seven other white men pleaded guilty or no contest to lesser charges in Allen’s slaying. Two black men were convicted in Schaad’s murder.
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