City Settles Great Lawn Protest Lawsuit


There’s nobody on the Great Lawn. And maybe that’s just how they like it.
Photo by IJsendoorn via Flickr

The city has settled a federal lawsuit brought by two groups which were denied permits for peaceful rallies during the 2004 Republican National Convention. The groups contended that the city was trying to relegate First Amendment-protected speech to the outer boroughs, far away from the out-of-towners who came to root George W. Bush on to a second term. The city said it was about, um, protecting the grass, which it did restore in 1997 at a reported cost of $18 million.

Under the terms of the agreement, the city will set up a four-person to panel to study the restrictions on the Great Lawn (many of which were hastily put together after the city denied the permits.) It will also pay $25,000 plus legal expenses to the two plaintiffs: the National Council of Arab Americans and the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) Coalition.

The Partnership for Civil Justice, the public interest firm that brought the case, said “the City must now establish a constitutionally valid permitting scheme for protests in Central Park and must undertake a feasibility study into the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn and what efforts can be undertaken to maximize the availability of the lawn for large events including rallies and demonstrations.”

But just how impartial will the city’s panel, comprised of four turf management experts and one crowd control expert, be? At least one organizer has her worries.

“Hopefully this will help everyone,” said Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice, which was also denied protest permits for the Great Lawn during the RNC. “But I don’t know how this penal will be put together. You know what they say about panels.”

(For more on panels, see the Voice story about the Rand Corporation’s analysis of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk data.)

The Partnership for Civil Justice said in a press release:

This three-year long litigation has been hard-fought, and included depositions of top city officials as well as successful obtainment of more than 10,000 pages of critical documents including internal emails and other materials. These documents proved the falsity of the City’s representations as to the basis of the denials for protest permits in 2004. They also revealed that Mayor Bloomberg and his office were directly involved in political decision-making as to who should have access to the Great Lawn.

“The lawsuit and today’s settlement successfully challenges the brazenly unconstitutional efforts to bar protests from the Great Lawn,” states Carl Messineo, a co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice. “The Bloomberg administration, along with the NYC Parks Department, took concerted actions to illegally block mass assembly protest during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. The Arab-American community and anti-war protestors were barred from the use of Central Park’s Great Lawn for mass assembly protests.” he continued.

A pdf of the settlement can be found on The Partnership for Civil Justice’s web site.

The following is a primer on the issue prepared by the city’s legal department:

To ensure ongoing study of issues relating to Great Lawn access in Central Park, New York City has agreed to settle a federal case brought in 2004 by the National Council of Arab Americans and the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) Coalition, two groups that sought a permit to demonstrate on the Great Lawn just prior to the start of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

The suit challenged the denial of a permit to the groups, in addition to the New York City Parks Department’s regulations imposing limits on the Great Lawn for large events – that is, events with more than 5,000 participants. To protect the lawn from damage and preserve it for softball and the other recreational uses for which it was designed, current Parks Department regulations restrict the number of large events to six per year, limit the times of year that events can be held to summer months when the lawn can better withstand trampling, and keep the maximum number of people who can attend events to 50,000.

The plaintiffs’ 2004 application for a preliminary injunction to allow them to demonstrate on the Great Lawn before the RNC was denied by U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley, III, and a similar 2004 preliminary injunction request by a group known as United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) was likewise denied by New York State Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann. (Although the injunctions were denied in both cases, the National Council of Arab Americans/ANSWER case moved forward. However, the UPJ was dismissed.

To resolve this case without the prolonged delay and expense of a trial, the City has agreed to fund a feasibility study by a committee of independent experts who will give the Parks Department specialized advice regarding the optimal and sustainable use of the Great Lawn for large events.

In the mid-1990s, the City spent $18.2 million in public and private funds to restore the Great Lawn and its surrounding landscapes, after years of overuse from frequent large-scale events and after high-impact running sports destroyed the lawn and turned the area into a mud bowl when wet and a dust bowl when dry. Since that time, restrictions on large events and athletic activity have been imposed, so as to maintain this valuable park resource for generations to come.

Although the Parks Department adopted the current restrictions after careful consideration by its own experts, the City has agreed to a study by independent experts to provide additional assurance and comfort to all concerned that restrictions on the use of the Great Lawn appropriately address the needs of all who seek to use one of the most important areas in Central Park.

The study committee will consist of three experts in turf management and one expert in crowd control. After the experts for the committee have been selected, the Parks Department will give the committee information regarding the physical characteristics of the Great Lawn, its experience with large events since the restoration, and its day-to-day use for softball and other active and passive recreation. The committee will then make a recommendation as to whether the current 50,000-person limit and other restrictions should be in an way modified, so that large events can be held on the Great Lawn without causing physical damage or preventing its daily use for active and passive recreation. (The City has three months to pick the experts; and the experts, once selected, have up 18 months to report their findings.)

The Parks Commissioner will use the study committee’s recommendation to determine whether the Parks Department’s regulations governing large events on the Great Lawn should be re-examined, loosened or tightened. The current regulations will remain in effect while the study is conducted, except that the maximum number of attendees permitted in the Great Lawn area will be up to 75,000 people.

As part of the agreed-upon settlement, the City will also make a cash payment of $25,000 to each plaintiff organization, and will pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees and costs.

The City believes that its current regulations regarding use of the Great Lawn are lawful and proper, and that the Parks Department properly denied a permit to the two plaintiff organizations in 2004. Nonetheless, the City of New York has agreed to enter into this settlement agreement, because it is in the City’s best interest to obtain additional recommendations from experts regarding the use of the Great Lawn for large events.

Consisting of eight softball fields, the Great Lawn must be preserved for the day-to-day recreational activities for which it was originally designed. However, the City recognizes that because of its size, the Great Lawn is a desirable venue for large cultural and political events. The City is seeking input from these additional experts to help it determine whether and to what extent a number of large events can be held on the Great Lawn each year without tying up or damaging the lawn to such an extent as to limit its availability for recreational activities.

Quote from Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo,
New York City Law Department

“We believe that the settlement of this matter is in the City’s best interests. The study will allow the Parks Department to obtain a recommendation that will help it determine whether, and to what extent, the Great Lawn can accommodate large concerts and rallies without significantly damaging the lawn or impeding its day-to-day use for softball and other recreational activities.”

Quote from Adrian Benepe, Commissioner,
New York City Parks Department

“The Parks Department has consistently made appropriate decisions to protect the Great Lawn’s primary function, which is to provide high-quality green space for active and passive recreation, as well as to accommodate cultural and political events. We welcome the opportunity for further study.”