Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told the Jerusalem District Court last week that the Jerusalem municipality’s regulations on demonstrations in the city are invalid and should be redrafted. The brief, written by staff of the Jerusalem district prosecutor’s office, came in a case filed by three members of the group Women Wage Peace challenging the city’s regulations.
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The petition was filed a year and a half ago on behalf of the three by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel after Jerusalem city officials banned them from setting up a protest tent opposite the prime minister’s residence. Ultimately the protest was allowed to proceed, based on a temporary court order, but the petition remained pending in court as a challenge to the city’s regulations.
Jerusalem city hall issued the following statement: “The Jerusalem municipality attaches importance to strengthening the balance between providing freedom of expression and protest and protecting the public space. As is natural, a large number of protests focus on the capital. The municipality, as the party responsible for the use and protection of the public space, must be the one to balance and make this use possible. In accordance with that, the Jerusalem municipality has developed rules allowing protests in public spaces.”
The city said that this does not involve abandoning its responsibility for locations where protests are held, and the rules are neutral as to the protesters’ message and only relate to regulating the use of public space.
Political and social justice activists have frequently faced a series of conditions from Jerusalem city hall in exchange for permission to hold protests in the city, particularly if organizers seek to set up a tent or stand on an ongoing basis. Among the limitations contained in the city’s regulations are a ban on protest tents opposite the prime minister’s residence, protest permits that expire after three days and limitations on sit-down strikes to two sites in the city – a park opposite the Knesset and at Agranat Square, opposite the Supreme Court. Regulations also ban demonstrations that might interfere with the operation of the city’s light rail service.
The city has required protest organizers to apply for what amounts to a protest permit and post a bank guarantee to ensure that the city will be compensated for damages caused by the demonstration.
The attorney general’s brief challenges most of the city’s requirements relating to protests. “Most of the provisions of the rules as they currently exist present real difficulties both from the standpoint of [the city’s] authority and due to the harm [they do] to freedom of expression beyond what is necessary, and as a result new rules should be developed,” Mendelblit wrote.
Although city hall is responsible for managing public space for the benefit of the public at large, it has no authority to require a permit for demonstrations and other protests “in light of the importance of political freedom of expression,” Mendelblit’s brief states, “and as a rule, there are no grounds for limiting protests near government sites beyond limitations that exist regarding other sites around the city.”
The brief notes that the required financial guarantee “is a major curb on freedom of expression and has a chilling effect, particularly for people of limited financial means.”
The court has yet to rule on the case.