law enforcement

U.S. Attorney Questions Legality of Philly Ban on Public Gatherings

The local federal prosecutor said Mayor Jim Kenney's ban on gatherings of 50 or more people through next February is unconstitutional if the city allows protests during the same period.

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U.S Attorney William McSwain said in a letter Wednesday that the City of Philadelphia is violating the free speech rights of citizens by banning all public gatherings, such as parades, while still allowing for spontaneous protests on city street.

It is the latest joust by the Republican prosecutor against a policy of the city's liberal government. McSwain is currently suing a nonprofit that, with the city's backing, wants to open a supervised injection site. He also frequently tussles with city District Attorney Larry Krasner over the DA's reform agenda.

In his letter dated July 22 (see full letter below), McSwain wrote to City Solicitor Marcel Pratt that the City is violating the First Amendment by putting a moratorium on all permits for public events in Philadelphia through Feb. 28, 2021, if the city also explicitly allows protests.

"In other words, the City plans to allow public gatherings that advance certain types of speech, but will prohibit public gatherings that advance other types of speech or protected forms of expression," McSwain wrote.

A spokesman for Kenney said in response to the letter that "the City values and respects the First Amendment and the resulting rights and protections to our residents.  The City is continuing to balance these rights and the significant health risks posed by the pandemic." 

He added that the city will provide a full response to the U.S. Attorney within a "couple of days."

"We sincerely hope that his letter is not an attempt by the Trump Administration to discourage peaceful protests in Philadelphia," Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said.

The city recently announced it would nullify all citations issued during the weeks of protests following George Floyd's killing during an arrest by police in Minnesota.

Attorneys representing more than 100 people involved in protests in Philadelphia are filing lawsuits against city leaders and police officers. NBC10's Matt DeLucia has the details.

“My decision to waive these violations is not a statement on the validity of the individual citations,” Kenney wrote. “Rather, it is a recognition of the core concerns that caused thousands to demonstrate on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Krasner this week announced assault charges against a Philadelphia SWAT team member who is allegedly the police officer seen on video peppery spraying kneeling protesters during an incident on I-676 at the height of the civil unrest in the city.

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