The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans won round one today in its ongoing battle against the City of New Orleans for charging unreasonable and excessive fees to clubs that conduct second line parades. The Court accepted an agreement negotiated with the City of New Orleans to allow The Original Pigeontown Steppers to parade for $2400. The City was attempting to charge them $7,500 for police escort fees--six times the 2005 amount of $1,200.
"Fortunately, we were able to reach a last minute agreement with the City to accept a fee that will allow the Pigeontown Steppers to parade on Easter Sunday," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "The fight, however, continues for the free speech rights of all second line groups affected by the NOPD?s post Katrina repressive, unfair and unreasonable fee structure."
In November, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force and its individual second line club members. That unresolved suit challenges the legality of the city ordinances and the state statute, which allows the NOPD to assess fees for the clubs to parade. Under the city ordinance, Police Chief Riley has virtually unfettered discretion to set the fees for a parading group. He has used this power to increase the charge on Second Line Clubs to $3790, an amount far in excess of what most groups can afford to pay.
"The escort fees went up after violence occurred in the crowd around some Second Line events, but imposing fees because of the behavior of a hostile audience is not allowed under the constitution," remarked Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Louisiana. "Ironically, The Original Pigeontown Steppers is a club famous for promoting nonviolence. After Katrina, having a positive force on the streets of New Orleans is more important than ever."
"This fee is not only unconstitutional, it violates the City's own laws," said Carol Kolinchak, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. "The local ordinance clearly says that the City can only charge parade participants for 10 officers, and yet the fee of $3790 being assessed upon our clients goes well beyond that amount."
The Pigeontown Steppers could not have paid the quoted $7,500 amount, and therefore would have had to cancel their parade without the success of the lawsuit. Late yesterday, an agreement was reached between the parties, which will allow the parade to move forward on Easter Sunday in the traditional manner.
"We are still concerned that this fee is too high, but are encouraged that the City has reduced its original unreasonable assessment by $5,100.00 in this case," said Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. "We will continue to negotiate with them in hopes of reaching a fair and reasonable formula applicable to all groups. However, the main objective today was to get the Pigeontown Steppers on the street this Sunday. With the help of donations, they will be able to meet the $2400 fee."
If the parties cannot reach an agreement, a formal court hearing will go forward as planned on April 25, 2007.