On Second Thought

City Settles Klan Demo Lawsuit

On Second Thought
Photo by Celesta Danger

It took nearly two years and a federal lawsuit, but the city of Austin has finally admitted it has no business deciding who is and who is not a reporter or pushing demonstrators far away from City Hall. Last week, the city settled a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas by a group of independent TV and film producers and protesters following a November 2005 Ku Klux Klan rally at City Hall. Not only had the city established a massive police cordon to keep counterdemonstrators two blocks away from the City Hall Plaza, where a dozen San Angelo Klansmen were rallying in support of the pending state Proposition 2 (rebanning same-sex marriages), but city managers and public-information officials created a "professional journalist" credentials test that effectively excluded noncommercial media – including film documentarians as well as producers from the city's own Public Access Cable Television network. Assistant City Manag­er Rudy Garza told In Fact Daily at the time, "We wanted to make sure that we had experienced, professional individuals in a situation where they could objectively report." (See "Point Austin," Nov. 18, 2005.) At the time, city officials insisted the policy had worked well and that there was no need for changes.

That tune, at least, has changed. Under the terms of the "Compromise Settlement and Agreement" announced last week, the city will establish a clear, nondiscriminatory, and "objective" procedure for media credentials in those "rarely necessary [and] most unusual" instances when credentials may be required (e.g., when space is limited) – but not to be determined by commercial considerations – and explicitly allowing equal access to PACT producers. Also, the Austin Police Depart­ment will establish a "free speech perimeter" around City Hall – basically defined by the immediately neighboring streets – to safely separate as necessary counterprotesters and controversial speakers at City Hall Plaza. "The perimeter will allow persons to exercise their free speech rights in safety," the settlement reads, "while allowing protestors, counter-protestors, etc. the same right to exercise their free speech rights in protests."

"At least we're in the queue now," said Iconmedia's Pam Thompson, one of three producers who sued after being denied access to the plaza to film the Klan rally. Thompson and Stefan Wray produce the Austin News Real show on PACT and are experienced Central Texas documentary filmmakers on political and environmental subjects. Thomp­son said she remains concerned that during the next controversy the city will interpret the settlement too narrowly and find another way to exclude independent media. "What we do is an educational thing," Thompson said, "and we are very far from 'commercial' media." Other plaintiffs in the suit included the American Civil Liberties Union's Debbie Russell and independent film producer Spencer Nutting.

Thompson also extended "a big thank-you" to attorneys Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project and Peter Kennedy (also the Chronicle's attorney) of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, who worked pro bono for the plaintiffs. (As part of the settlement, the city agreed to pay the TCRP $3,000 in legal fees.) "They take up the cause," Thompson said, "for those who don't have the resources to do it on their own."

*Oops! The following correction ran in the September 28, 2007 issue: In our September 7 issue, the KKK rally photo on p.22 was credited to the wrong photographer. The photo was actually taken by Celesta Danger. We regret the error.

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Ku Klux Klan, Texas Civil Rights Project, Rudy Garza, PACT, Pam Thompson, Jim Harrington

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