ACLU On Portland Mayor’s New Policy: “We Already Have Laws Against Street Fighting And Violence.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed an emergency ordinance that would allow police to place limitations on public demonstrations where two or more groups plan to fight.

An antifascist protester give a single-finger salute at an Aug. 4 rally. (Sam Gehrke)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon thinks Mayor Ted Wheeler has overstepped his authority and threatened free-speech rights with a new policy proposal to curb violence at Portland protests.

"The proposed ordinance raises many constitutional concerns," says Mat dos Santos, legal director for the civil liberties organization. "The mayor's proposal grants broad authority to the mayor's office to regulate constitutionally-protected speech and assembly with no meaningful oversight for abuse."

Wheeler said at a press conference this afternoon that the emergency ordinance, if approved by City Council, would allow police to restrict protests to certain areas and time frames. His goal is to prevent the bloody brawls that have erupted each time the Vancouver, Wash.-based group Patriot Prayer comes to town.

The ACLU says the proposal should have been open to feedback from the public.

"Perhaps worse than the legal issues it raises, is that this ordinance is being sprung on the public with little notice as an emergency measure that will take effect immediately," dos Santos says. "This action by the mayor demonstrates a lack of trust in the public and is an end-run around our usual democratic processes. We suspect that this rushed proposal will be met with public outcry and demonstrations."

Wheeler has lately been under heightened scrutiny after a protest on Oct. 6 led to conservative media stories criticizing the police for allowing demonstrators to block traffic and bang on at least one car as it drove through the crowd.  He also received backlash after street fights broke out during a far-right march on Oct. 13.

But civil rights advocates say those incidents do not justify the mayor's proposal and point to existing laws that should allow police to target law breakers. The ACLU of Oregon suspects the new rules will face legal challenges for infringing on people's First Amendment rights.

"Inevitably, this ordinance will get challenged in court," dos Santos says. "To be clear, we already have laws against street fighting and violence."

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