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City settlement with ACLU expands Inner Harbor protest areas

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates on Wednesday approved a nearly $100,000 settlement with the ACLU of Maryland to end a decade-old federal lawsuit over the rights of protesters at the Inner Harbor.

The settlement is the final piece of a consent decree, signed in August, which in part allows protests in new areas of the Inner Harbor, including near the National Aquarium, Baltimore, and creates an “instant permit” process to handle protests related to current events.

“We hope the Inner Harbor will be a better place for everyone,” City Solicitor George A. Nilson said after Wednesday’s meeting of the spending panel.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2003 by Women in Black — Baltimore, a chapter of an international network of war protesters, which alleged its free speech rights were violated when it was forced off McKeldin Square that April during a demonstration against the war in Iraq. Members of the group wear black, carry signs promoting peace and hold silent vigil, according to the lawsuit.

A temporary restraining order allowed Women in Black to return to their protest space as the lawsuit progressed, Rocah said, and the group continues its vigil every Friday to this day.

The $98,000 settlement will go toward attorneys’ fees for the ACLU of Maryland, an amount Nilson said was reasonable for the length of the case and for the work the plaintiffs’ attorneys put into the case.

“This was a long and painful process, but in the end a worthwhile process,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “The [new] rules do more to respect free speech rights and make sure small groups are not shut out of the public square.”

Under the consent decree, a permit is not needed for demonstrations of 30 people or fewer in any city park. For those demonstrations that do require a permit, the application must be submitted at least two days in advance, not 30 days as previously required.

The two-day advance can be waived, however, by the director of the Department of Recreation and Parks for a demonstration “in order to respond to imminent events and concerns” so long as no additional city resources are required.

Also, the department is required to waive permit fees for any person or group who cannot afford them.

In addition to city parks, the consent decree expands the sites where protests can occur downtown. McKeldin Square, the space west of the Inner Harbor’s visitor center, the grassy area between the World Trade Center and the aquarium and a portion of the pier near the U.S.S. Constellation are all Inner Harbor locations where up to 30 protesters can assemble without a permit. The same goes for the Broadway Pier and Broadway Square in Fells Point and Canton Waterfront Park and Harris Creek Park in Canton.

Leafleting also is allowed now by up to 30 people in all those locations without a permit, with a few limited exceptions.

Second settlement

Also on Wednesday, the board approved a $75,000 settlement with a Baltimore mother and son who alleged his jaw was broken by a police officer.

Kia Bacote and her son, DeAndre, claimed DeAndre began to run when approached by unknown individuals yelling racial epithets in March 2011. As DeAndre approached a marked police car, Officer Valentine H. Nagovich, one of the men chasing him, allegedly punched him in the face, according to the lawsuit.

DeAndre was falsely charged with possession of heroin, assaulting Nagovich and possessing a BB gun and was acquitted at trial, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2011, sought $3.6 million in damages.