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NYCLU and New York Press Club Decry De Blasio's 'Free Speech Zone'

By Katie Honan | May 28, 2015 12:30pm
 Sign-holding locals were banished to another
Sign-holding locals were banished to another "free speech zone" at a job fair event attended by Mayor de Blasio in Far Rockaway on Oct. 15.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

ROCKAWAY BEACH — First Amendment and press freedom advocates blasted the mayor's office for banishing sign-holding protesters to a "free speech zone" at the opening of the rebuilt Rockaway boardwalk last week, saying it made a "mockery of our basic rights."

Days after DNAinfo first reported that de Blasio aides ordered a handful of residents who brought signs to the May 22 unveiling to stand in a cordoned off area hundreds of feet away was "outrageous" and "makes a travesty" of the mayor's pledge for transparency, according to a letter sent Thursday by New York Press Club. 

"We demand that you inform your aides that suppression of the press is against the law of the land and the policies of your administration," NYPC president Larry Seary and Gabe Pressman, the chair of the Freedom of the Press committee, wrote the mayor.

Free speech and freedom of the press are the same, and require the same level of respect, the letter added.

Christopher Dunn, the Associate Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, also said the mayor's office had no right to stop protesters from demonstrating peacefully at public events.

"The city had no authority to send people off...they should not be in the business of trying to block protesters," Dunn said.

"I can't think of any experience where people are sent to a 'free speech zone,' which of course is a misnomer," he added.

It was the second such zone created by de Blasio's office on the Rockaway peninsula to prevent protesters, usually holding signs, from entering events.

On Oct. 15, 2014, five local civic activists holding signs about reopening a library destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and permanently extending the ferry were ordered to stand on a sidewalk far from a job fair event inside a school.

"They told us to move, we weren't allowed on the other side of the sidewalk," said Danny Ruscillo, who is active in local civic issues and is president of the 100th Precinct Community Council.

Ruscillo said protesters were blocked from entering the job fair, where the mayor spoke, and were ordered to stand across the street. Officers from the 101st Precinct blocked the sign holders and created a makeshift barricade as the mayor entered and exited the building. 

John Cori, another local activist who held a sign about the boardwalk and the ferry, said he made it up to the mayor's "limo" but was then forced by the NYPD to cross the street. 

"The security said the mayor didn't want to see us," he said.