Commentary

City Hall Under Siege

by Jessica Green

The latest round of First Amendment feud between the City and the courts is in full swing. First, US District Court Judge Harold Baer held that the City was making arbitrary decisions about who could and could not assemble in the plaza and on the steps of City Hall. He threw out the City's old rules.

Mayor Giuliani responded shortly thereafter by adopting a new "emergency order." The new rules try to grapple with Judge Baer's arbitrary argument, and clearly outline procedures for "press conferences, demonstrations, picketing, speechmaking, vigils and like forms of expressive conduct..." The rules clearly specify exemptions: inaugurations, award ceremonies for city employees and ceremonies for ticker-tape parades are okay. The Mayor has even agreed to open City Hall Plaza to pedestrian traffic for the first time in almost two years - provided that all pedestrians go through metal detectors on their way in.


The policeman told me City Hall was closed to the public. Could I at least walk around? "I'm sorry ma'am, it's only open to City employees." So much for access.

While the right to assemble on the steps of City Hall is a compelling and controversial issue, access problems affect individuals as well as groups, and extend to the inside of the building as much as to the area in front. Despite the relaxed rules, barricades still pepper the grounds. One may not circle the building entirely. There are 8 foot tall iron gates, cameras, police, and an enormous red vehicular barricade within the gates, which, in case you didn't figure it out, is lettered STOP in huge text.

And they mean STOP.

Last Friday, after hearing the City's announcement that it was opening up City Hall Plaza, I decided to take this newly found pedestrian liberation for a test drive. The East Gate was ajar, so I wandered in, paying no attention to the police in the booth. One of them quickly stopped me: "May I help you ma'am?" When I asked if I could just have a look around City Hall and the grounds, he told me City Hall was closed to the public. Could I at least walk around? "I'm sorry ma'am, it's only open to City employees." Unable to traverse the plaza, I backtracked and went through City Hall park to try the other side, which allows you to walk in about 15 yards before encountering barricades. A very friendly policeman in his car told me the same thing - both were closed to the public. As his excuse, he offered something vague about terrorist bombings. So much for access.

On the Beat

For the purposes of reporting for the Gotham Gazette and the Searchlight on the City Council, I am required to make frequent visits to City Hall - actually inside the building - to attend meetings of the City Council.


If you are congenial, deferential, politely assertive or memorable in some other way, you may befriend some of the officers regularly stationed at The Gate. Congratulations, you have passed Test Number One. This means you get to go inside City Hall.

Upon arriving at the outer gates of City Hall, I must pass the first test: the police. First, state your business. If you are congenial, deferential, politely assertive or memorable in some other way, you may befriend some of the officers regularly stationed at The Gate. Congratulations, you have passed Test Number One. This means you get the knowing we're-on-the-same-page nod, and you get to go in.

If this happens, I walk around the side of the building and descend a ramp to the basement doors. They are generally jerry-rigged ajar with some twine or cord. It is a very glamorous entrance; I much prefer it to the steps in the front of the building, which are tiring to climb and exposed to the wind. Once inside, I go through the metal detector, and am on my way to Council chambers. I am not always allowed to use the stairs, and wait two minutes for a two floor elevator ride to Council Chambers. Phew! I have arrived.

However, increasingly, I have had difficulties passing Test Number One. At the March 29th Stated Meeting of the City Council, I was made to wait outside the gates, along with some twenty or so others, for almost an hour. The reason, we were told by the policeman at the gate, were "orders." The Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America was delivering the invocation, and for "reasons of security," the public was not permitted to enter. Nor were we allowed to wait inside the foyer (it was a brisk March day), because of the traffic that two groups of people, one remaining still and one exiting, would create. Thankfully, we did not create any traffic loitering on the street, nor did we block the entrance or passage of pedestrians.

On another recent occasion, I went to attend two committee meetings, occurring simultaneously. Approaching The Gate, I saw a sizable group loitering outside. Great, I thought, here we go again. I hate being lumped together with those pesky advocates; they are always causing a ruckus. What are they so worried about, anyway? The City Council hates the Mayor; they'll override his vetoes. I approached the cop, who was safely on the other side of The Gate. This necessitated a conversation through the bars.

The upshot of the conversation was, not surprisingly, take a number. I was made to wait with those pesky advocates again, who had come to the Health Committee meeting to ensure that malathion would not be used again in spraying against West Nile Virus. According to the policeman, the reason for the delay was lack of space. The meeting was to take place in the committee room (which comfortably seats around 50 people, in addition to the Councilmembers and their staff), and they (who?) had to first be sure that there was sufficient space for the Council and the press. Many of the others waiting outside were planning to testify, since it was a public hearing.


The barricade mentality that pervades City Hall - both inside and out - is gnawing at civic life. Attending City Council hearings should not be a privilege for the persistent or the lucky.

Undeterred, I politely told the policeman my name and affiliation. There was another committee meeting I was planning to attend in the much larger Council chambers; perhaps he would let me in to that meeting?

"Yeah, what meeting?"

Damn! The first rule of getting into the City Council: state your business. I forgot what the other meeting was (it was an oversight hearing for the new Census subcommittee.) Still, I gently persisted:

"I'm not quite sure, because I come here a lot, so I don't always remember exactly which meeting. I write for the Citizens Union, the Searchlight on the City Council. Maybe you're heard of it?"

He knew the Searchlight, and Citizens Union, but still wouldn't let me in. His reason? "If you don't know which meeting you're here for, how I am supposed to believe you?"

Slam. Iron door in the face. Clearly, not remembering the committee meeting made me untrustworthy.

I was made to wait, again, by now, quite angry. We were finally let in (through the basement). The hearing was moved from the Committee Room to Council Chambers. Space problem solved.

While talking to other "rejectees" outside the gates of City Hall, many recounted similar stories - of being de-postered (they're not permitted in chambers), of being made to wait, and being turned away.

I have never been flat out denied access to City Hall if I wait long enough, but it has become awfully hard to get in. The barricade mentality that pervades City Hall - both inside and out - is gnawing at civic life. Attending City Council hearings should not be a privilege for the persistent or the lucky. The exercise of citizenship should not be made to wait outside or enter through the back door.

Jessica Green is the Managing Editor of the Gotham Gazette.

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