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Bullish on parade

Hopeful defendants plan to talk free speech, but not excessive force, in court next week


The scene turned sour when police took over at the St. - Patricks Day Parade. - MARK LEWIS
  • Mark Lewis
  • The scene turned sour when police took over at the St. Patricks Day Parade.

The arrests of seven antiwar marchers at this year's Colorado Springs St. Patrick's Day parade were full of drama, marked by accusations of police brutality and infringement on free speech.

The single charge facing each of those marchers is less spectacular.

On Aug. 23 and 24, the "St. Paddy's Day Seven" will head to municipal court to defend themselves against the charge of obstructing passage or assembly, meaning that they tried to interfere with the parade.

Greg Walta, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union defending the marchers, says he won't bring up accusations that the police used excessive force when making the arrests including claims that officers used "chokeholds," twisted arms and went too far in dragging 65-year-old Elizabeth Fineron across the pavement. But he will bring up freedom of speech.

"Certainly because the case comes up in the context of an exercise of free speech, the city is going to have to carry a heavier burden to show guilt than they would be if people were just milling around," Walta says.

The antiwar marchers took part in the parade the previous year without incident, and had a permit to march in the 2007 parade, though parade chairman John O'Donnell has questioned that permit's validity. He says the marchers violated written rules against addressing "social issues" in the parade, and weren't honest about their message when they applied for the permit.

But Walta questions whether O'Donnell could reasonably revoke that permit mid-parade and ask police to remove the marchers.

Even if the permit is considered to be invalid, the prosecution will still need to prove that the marchers intended to disrupt the parade, according to Walta.

Bill Durland, one of the arrested marchers, says the group did not set out to interfere with the parade, adding that they would have kept moving if police had allowed them to do so.

The protesters also maintain that despite the skirmish, the parade was not interrupted. The defense plans to use video and photos at trial to prove just that.

Mark Lewis, a supporter of the St. Paddy's Day Seven who was at the parade but was not arrested, has been collecting photos and video of the incident for the trial.

He says he already has a good presentation, but thinks he will be helped even more by footage held by the prosecution, which has to be shared with the defense.

"I expect them to drop the charges before the trial starts," Lewis says.

The protesters aren't discussing their strategy, though some might file civil lawsuits later. Durland said he does not plan to sue.

City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher says protesters, police and parade organizers share the blame for the incident, but he doesn't see the need for legal action. Heimlicher says he wishes the three parties would agree to discuss the matter and brainstorm ways to avoid clashes in the future.

"To me, it's nonproductive to have these trials go on and rehash these things again," Heimlicher says.

Heimlicher also believes that City Council should re-evaluate some of its decision-making. He won't be involved in the trial, but he doesn't think it's constitutionally correct to restrict peaceful free speech on public streets, even if a private party has a permit to use those streets.

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