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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues – Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example – the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter, better known as Meg, is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

by Margaret Reuter, Center for New York City Law at New York Law School

In the News: City Parade-Permitting Program to Go on Trial

(may '00) The Second Circuit federal court has just called for an examination of the standards the City uses for granting (or denying) permits for parades and other street events. The case involved a group called Million Marijuana March which wanted to march from Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue to Central Park at 96th Street, on Saturday, May 2, 1998. The group has a long tradition of holding rallies on the first weekend in May to promote the legalization of marijuana.

Free speech rights guarantee us the chance to gather, rally, perform and speak in the public spaces of the City. That includes the sidewalks, plazas, parks and even streets. A single speaker can pretty much set up anywhere, anytime. When many want to gather, it necessarily means that others will be displaced. In order not to disrupt normal City life, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the government may set reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of the gathering, including requiring the sponsors to first get a permit. The Supreme Court has also instructed, however, that the permit decision-makers cannot have unbridled discretion to grant or deny permits because that could lead to discrimination based on the content of the speech--anathema to the Constitution.

New York City, like every city, requires permits for events that take over the sidewalks, that close some traffic lanes or an entire street, or even that dominate a park or section of one. The City has different sets of permit rules for each of these events. The City's parade permit law, NYC Admin. Code ß10-110, dating back to 1937, allows permits for parades and processions, though not along high-traffic or high-commerce routes (unless the businesses are to be closed), nor if the NYPD believes the event will be "disorderly in character or tend to disrupt the peace." But it allows for special permits for any route if it is for an occasion of "extraordinary public interest." Million Marijuana March organizers challenged that the two quoted provisions were so open-ended that they were unconstitutional. Initially, US District Judge Leonard Sand dismissed their suit, stating that the rules were content neutral and did not vest NYPD with excessive discretion. The Second Circuit reviewed the case, but concluded that there was not enough evidence in the record to assess the constitutionality of the City law. While the local law itself might grant broad discretion, if the NYPD in practice applied even, objective standards, then the law could be upheld. The appellate court sent the case back for a trial on the Police Department's practices.

Meg Sounds Off: It's not so easy to craft fair street events rules

Placing the Police Department's parade-permitting program on trial will be illuminating. Will it show that the police process thousands of permit requests a year? That they try to accommodate nearly everyone? That they have clear rules so that event sponsors know what is reasonable to ask? Do they process the applications expeditiously so that organizers can effectively promote their events? Or not? High profile cases in recent years have cast an unflattering light on the parade permitting program (e.g., Million Youth March in 1998 and 1999, a police brutality march in October 1998). Were those marches the exception or the rule?

With hindsight, it often seems glaringly obvious that a permit was unfairly denied. Prospectively, however, it is far more difficult to craft a set of rules that can judiciously balance our free speech needs (to speak and to hear) against the mundane needs of getting business done, and at the same time wisely handle all the million different kinds of street permit requests the police receive. Is there a principled way for the City to close major thoroughfares to celebrate great events (ending a war, placing a man on the moon) but not allow the same route to be closed for a major protest of government policies? What if a major film director wanted to close that same thoroughfare to film a Tom Hanks movie? What if alot of neighbors wanted to close the same thoroughfare for a street fair? What if a protest sponsor could credibly demonstrate that a quarter million people will be coming to their planned rally? What if the sponsors would love a quarter million people to come, but actually would be lucky if 1,000 people came?

Meg's Top Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.

Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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