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‘Free speech’ rally in Boston gets its permit — with stiff restrictions

John Medlar, an organizer of Saturday’s “free speech rally” on Boston Common.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

No bats. No sticks. No backpacks.

Those are on the list of “zero tolerance” rules that Commissioner William B. Evans and Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Wednesday issued to organizers of a controversial “free speech rally” scheduled to be held on Boston Common on Saturday.

The Boston Free Speech Coalition, which also goes by the name New Free Speech Movement, received a permit for 100 people, but it has major restrictions.

“No weapons, no backpacks, no sticks,’’ Walsh explained. “We are going to have a zero-tolerance policy. If anyone gets out of control — at all — it will be shut down.”


That goes for everyone, he stressed.

The approved permit, which was reviewed by the Globe, was issued to John Medlar, spokesman for the coalition, at 2:47 p.m. Wednesday. It is for a total of five hours, including two — from noon to 2 p.m. — for the rally. Three total hours are reserved for setting up and shutting down.

Police officials met with organizers from the “free speech rally” and a separate “solidarity march” and explained the high expectations for Saturday, Evans told reporters. He said members from both groups were cooperative.

“We asked — like we do to any large-scale events — that people don’t bring backpacks,’’ Evans said. “They are going to be subject to search because we still worry about . . . the threat of terrorism. Any large sticks [and] anything that can be used as a weapon’’ are banned.

Medlar confirmed the meeting with police, including Superintendent Kevin Buckley, at police headquarters around 10 a.m. Wednesday. He also had a separate meeting with city permitting director Paul McCaffrey to discuss logistics related to the rally.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Medlar said he was relieved the permit issue is resolved.

“It’s one thing to be told it’s going to happen,’’ Medlar said. “It’s another thing when you actually have real confirmation.”


The police commissioner and other law enforcement officials met separately with organizers of a “racial justice solidarity march” that is also planned for Saturday, said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.

Sullivan said the NAACP is not holding the march but hosted the meeting at its Roxbury offices to help ensure a clear understanding of the public safety measures that will be in place Saturday.

Monica Cannon, a Roxbury advocate who heads the Violence in Boston Movement, is leading the racial justice solidarity march — organized in response to the free speech rally. Cannon also attended the meeting.

“The meeting was informative, and the NAACP will continue to monitor the impact of any new developments,’’ Sullivan said. “It is very likely that there will be large numbers of people converging on the Boston Common Saturday afternoon. Our hope is that the message of racial justice and equality rings loud, while at the same time everyone makes it home safe.”

The free speech rally garnered major attention after the bloodshed in Charlottesville, Va. Virginia authorities said neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists incited the violence. And many across social media feared some of the people involved in Charlottesville might also attend Saturday’s rally in Boston.

Civil rights advocates expressed concern about the rally’s association to white nationalists individuals and groups.

Organizers of the Boston free speech rally — who are mostly young white men in their 20s — insist their event is all about the freedom of expression. They said they denounce violence.


But civil rights activists, noting the extreme, white nationalist views of some of the speakers who were initially invited, criticized the coalition for offering a platform to people who spew hate and racial violence.

As the rally day neared, a handful of faith leaders gathered on City Hall Plaza around lunchtime Wednesday to lock hands and pray for healing and peace in Boston and the White House.

The prayers came a day after a vigil at the New England Holocaust Memorial, which was vandalized Monday for the second time this summer.

The mayor used the opportunity to again deliver a message to any group that wants to cause trouble Saturday.

“You can have your free speech all day long, but let’s not speak about hate, bigotry, and racism,’’ Walsh said.

Evans, the police commissioner, said officers will monitor Saturday’s events as they do any major gatherings. There will be barricades separating the free speech rally and the social justice march, he said, adding that he is not sure how many people are expected to attend.

Evans also said that although police met with organizers of the free speech rally, he has “no way to know” whether they support white supremacist views.

“Obviously they are claiming they are all about free speech, but that’s not my role to determine who and what they are,’’ Evans said. “I know we have a job to do and that is to keep people safe.”


Globe correspondent Kiana Cole contributed to this report. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons.