Metro

ACLU sues Cambridge for billing Women’s March groups

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Thousands fill Cambridge Common during a Women’s March on Jan. 20.

ACLU Massachusetts sued the city of Cambridge last week on behalf of local organizers of the Women’s March, who say they were charged thousands of dollars for police details and emergency medical services for which they never agreed to pay.

Massachusetts Peace Action, one of several organizations that planned the Jan. 20 march, called the charges an impediment to free speech.

“What’s at stake is the freedom to assemble and the freedom to speak,” said Michelle Cunha, assistant director of Massachusetts Peace Action. “If people or organizations are going to be expected to pay thousands of dollars for police details, that significantly chills their ability to speak.”

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Louis DePasquale, the Cambridge city manager who, along with the city, is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment through a spokesperson, who cited the pending litigation.

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But in a Tuesday message to the City Council, DePasquale said he was disappointed the complaint had been filed, because he “believed we were working collaboratively on a solution, and because the city was close to resolving this issue.”

DePasquale also wrote that he would continue to work with the ACLU on a resolution.

Cunha said the group did not agree to pay for police details or emergency medical services at the march, which was one of hundreds across the country timed to coincide with the anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. Up to 10,000 people attended the event.

The complaint, filed July 3 in Middlesex Superior Court, says Cambridge’s policy for large gatherings in public parks is vague and allows city officials to decide when to impose service charges for public safety services or to “control the conduct of counter-demonstrators.”

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The legal complaint says Massachusetts Peace Action was told just two days after the march that the group would be charged $4,000 for the city-provided services.

A Cambridge Parks and Public Areas website, cited in the complaint, says that gatherings of more than 200 “may require a Police Detail and/or DPW personnel in attendance at the expense of the applicant.”

Another Park and Public Area Usage Policy says people and organizations “shall furnish if necessary, at their own expense, fire, police detail or other protection as the City of Cambridge may direct.”

Cunha said city officials had, in meetings prior to the march, mentioned there may be charges.

Then, on the day of the march, Cunha said, she was handed a document to sign agreeing to pay bills for public safety charges, and she declined.

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When asked about the lawsuit, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern responded in a statement that he was “proud” to speak at the January march and has been following this situation closely.

“My impression has been that the city and the organizers have been working closely to resolve this issue and I’m confident that a resolution will be reached,” he said.

But Ruth Bourquin, an attorney for the ACLU who is representing the organizers, said that the charges amount to a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on limiting the contents of speech, and that the current political environment makes this issue even more pressing.

“Particularly in these times when there’s a need for people to congregate and share these views and concerns and opposition, to impose unconstitutional charges on their right to do so has a chilling effect on the public’s ability to participate in this very basic way,” she said.

Cunha said that her organization is not “vilifying” the city, and that throughout the planning process they had a “good working relationship” with Cambridge officials.

Cunha and Bourquin both also said they hope the issue can be worked out with the city before hearings begin later this month.

“We are hopeful that the city will see the light and they will suspend the policy and it will be seen as a positive thing for everyone, especially those that care about the First Amendment,” Cunha said.

Jamie Halper can be reached at jamie.halper@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.