Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shameful press and ticket policy at City Council Debate comes under fire

Christine Quinn, NYU use private security to possibly trample on the media's and on voters' First Amendment rights.

Whenever it is alleged that police officers of the NYPD participate in corruption or other forms of serious misconduct, the police department has an Internal Affairs Bureau that investigates these allegations against members of the police force. But who has oversight or power to investigate private security firms operating in New York City ? On the global level, there has been plenty of controversy involving private security firms in respect of allegations of abuse of "detainees." According to Amnesty International, "Over three years ago, the Justice Department (DOJ) required that all cases of detainee abuse by private military and security contractors be handled by one US Attorney's Office." Meanwhile, at the local level, such as in New York City, there is new evidence that the use of private security firms by local politicians and public institutions is leading to possible violations of voters' First Amendment rights.

At the first City Council debate on Thursday night, August 13, 2009, for the District 3 seat among the candidates Yetta Kurland and Maria Passannante-Derr, and the incumbent Christine Quinn, the private security force of New York University prevented at least two political candidates, two journalists with media credentials certified by NYPD, one freelance reporter, a few dozen undecided voters, and demonstrators from attending the political debate. The setting for the debate was 19 West 4th Street, a facility operated by NYU. According to its website, NYU is the "largest private university in the United States," and "also one of the largest employers in New York City, with over 16,000 employees."

Norman Siegel, a respected attorney and candidate for New York City Public Advocate, was denied entry to the debate, as were two reporters: one from each of City Hall and NY1. In a race that may determine who may may be the next City Council Speaker (or may not be, should Speaker Quinn lose the election), organizers of the debate issued only 5 press passes. General attendance by spectators was limited to ticket holders, and there emerged a controversy over the distribution of tickets. Criticisms were made by demonstrators, including the author of this post and by Suzannah B. Troy, that the distribution of tickets favored one candidate, who whose supporters could get in line several hours before the beginning of the debate. (A basis for criticism is the press release issued by Mary Anna Mancuso, press secretary for Ms. Passannante-Derr, which stated that Speaker Quinn became aware of the ticket procedures ealier than did her opponents.) Rumors also circulated among voters opposing Speaker Quinn that the incumbent allowed her staff to leave work early that day, so that she could fill the crown in her favor. Enforcing the restrictive access rules was the private security force of NYU. After the debate, Ms. Troy said, "It appears as if Christine Quinn was given inside information about the structuring and set up of the debate, allowing her to fill the audience with as many supporters as possible, and then NYU, a mega real estate developer and backer of the Bloomberg administration, endeavored to exclude as many people as possible, including the press."

Outside the debate, Mr. Siegel, demonstrators, and undecided voters tried to reason with representatives and security officers for NYU. Because of the importance of the political race for this singular New York City Council seat, when it became apparent that NYU security was going to steadfastly deny the 3 reporters access to the debate, passions became enflamed. Mr. Siegel, the reporters, and protesters immediately charged that the Freedom of the Press was being trampled on by the organizers of the debate, including NYU. Freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of our democracy, and everyone left outside were dumbstruck. Why was a reputable institution such as NYU willingly being complicit in the willful rejection of media with certified press credentials from a debate that will determine who may be our next democratically-elected City Council Speaker ?

A concern of the protesters and of Mr. Siegel was that police and security can sometimes deny voters and the media their First Amendment rights. Here was an instance where citizens and voters were exercising their First Amendment rights to peacefully protest; yet the very actions by the private security force of NYU was arguably denying us our rights. That night, in the conversations that took place between Mr. Siegel, demonstrators, and undecided voters outside the debate, it was revealed that Speaker Quinn has, in the past, used private security to bully protesters into moving off of public property.

In an ominous warning, Mr. Siegel warned us that once politicians learn that there is little or no consequence of denying citizens their Freedom of Assembly, we face the prospect of losing those rights – because the government, politicians, other public institutions, and now private security firms have learned that they can infringe on our rights and get away with it.

Update! After its initial posting, this entry was corrected and supplemented with additional information, including a link to the text of Ms. Passannante-Derr's press release.

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