D.C. mayor declines to sign First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004, an ordinance the City Council passed handily in December with a 12-1 vote, will go to Congress without the endorsement of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who declined on Wednesday to sign the bill after it was forwarded to him on Jan. 7.

The move, his spokeswoman said, was meant “to put on record the mayor’s opposition to elements of the bill that he would like fixed.”

The bill, authored by Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, was written in response to arrests at street demonstrations surrounding the September 2002 International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings. The police department later admitted the arrests, which included some student journalists, were “improper.” The arrests led to litigation that has cost the city approximately half a million dollars. One lawsuit was settled with the city this week for $425,000; another class-action suit involving approximately 400 protesters and bystanders is ongoing.

Largely aimed at protecting protesters, the bill mandates police activity during demonstrations and eases the process demonstrators must follow to acquire permits for gatherings in the capital. It also allows groups of 50 or fewer people to gather and demonstrate downtown without a permit.

The bill also has a section on police-media relations, requiring the chief of police to issue a policy on the distribution of official media credentials.

The mayor returned the bill to the Council with a letter that points out his reservations about the bill. Among them, Williams said, are that the bill authorizes unplanned demonstrations and limits the use of police tactics. The bill also “significantly increases the prospect of litigation after every major event,” he said.

“I believe that the legislation passed goes beyond protecting First Amendment rights in a way that will have unintended consequences for the ways in which our police force can protect public safety during mass demonstrations,” Williams wrote in a letter addressed to Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp.

Williams’ spokeswoman, Sharon Gang, said Williams did not take issue with any of the media provisions in the bill.

Although Williams did not sign the bill, he did not veto it outright, which means the bill now goes to Congress, where it faces 30 days of review. If no member of Congress objects to the bill it will become law. Instead of vetoing the bill, Gang said, Williams wanted to represent to the Council that he did not endorse the measure.

However, “I am allowing it to become law with the hope that I can work positively with the Council and the Judiciary Committee this year to … come to agreement on reasonable amendments to this law,” Williams wrote.

Read previous coverage

  • New D.C. ordinance governs police procedure at demonstrations, gatherings News Flash, 1/19/2005
  • D.C. agrees to settle lawsuit with student photographers arrested at protest News Flash, 1/6/2004
  • D.C. police admit IMF protest arrests were ‘improper’ News Flash, 9/17/2003
  • Media groups protest student journalists’ arrests, seek police department policy barring interference with newsgathering News Flash, 3/7/2003
  • Seven reporters detained during IMF protests; suit filed for “trap and arrest” The Report, Winter 2002-03
  • George Washington journalism, law students sue over arrests News Flash, 10/22/2002
  • D.C. drops charges against photographer arrested at protests News Flash, 10/18/2002
  • Account from IMF protests points to police bias against student media News Flash, 10/2/2002
  • Six student journalists arrested while covering IMF protests News Flash, 10/1/2002