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Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

Selective enforcement

March 30, 2003

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Why should the city hesitate to enforce city ordinances simply because people justify their offense as a political protest?

Apparently, city ordinances aren't all that important. People living in or visiting Lawrence are expected to abide by them, but if people decide to break the law while making a political statement, city and law enforcement officials apparently are willing to overlook the violations.

Lawrence has a city ordinance saying city parks are to be vacated by 11:30 p.m. and that it is unlawful for anyone to occupy the parks between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. (Burcham Park, along the Kansas River, is the exception, with a closing time of 10:30 p.m.) These are the rules unless a special permit or variance has been issued.

This is the city's law. And yet, a group of people protesting U.S. actions in Iraq was allowed to set up a tent city and spend several nights in South Park as a statement in support of their political viewpoint.

Local residents may or may not sympathize with those who occupied South Park. Perhaps even city officials are supportive of the tent residents' cause. But does that justify ignoring the city ordinances prohibiting such an action?

People who live near the park complained about the tents. The campers clearly were in violation of city ordinances. Why should the city have taken such a lenient approach? Once city and law enforcement officials set a deadline for the group to evacuate the park, the situation was quickly resolved Thursday night.

A related incident involved a large elm tree on a vacant lot south of the Borders bookstore at Seventh and New Hampshire. First one woman, then another perched in the tree in protest of the tree's removal. To the protesters, the tree was a symbol of big business and development in Lawrence. Even though it was dead, they wanted to preserve it as some sort of political symbol.

Unlike the tent city, this demonstration took place on private property. Although the owners of the property negotiated with the protesters, one woman remained in the tree past the 10 p.m. Thursday deadline set by the owner. When local law enforcement personnel stepped in to help resolve the situation, the protester peacefully climbed down from the tree early Friday morning.

Interestingly, she expressed disappointment that those who had supported her protest took off when law enforcement arrived. "Everybody else ran off with their tails between their legs." So much for standing on principle.

Lawrence obviously is a tolerant town that protects people's right to protest and dissent. When such protests don't create a nuisance on public property or interfere with a private property owner's rights, they may be innocent enough, but lines need to be drawn and there needs to be some consistency to enforcement.

Some observers have aptly noted that if justifying certain behavior by calling it a political protest shields the violator from local law enforcement, it might become a common excuse for any number of offenses. Somehow, we don't think most of those cases would hold up in court.

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