Monday, November 7, 2011

Bergstein & Ullrich settle First Amendment public assembly case

City of Kingston agrees to pay $25,000 to aggrieved activists

Kingston Times
October 20, 2011
By Jesse Smith

The City of Kingston will pay a locally based pro-Palestinian activist group $25,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that police violated their First Amendment rights when they were turned away from a 2008 celebration of the founding of Israel in a public park.

According to Stephen Bergstein, attorney for the group Middle East Crisis Response, the agreement was worked out on October 11 just as jury selection was getting underway in U.S. District Court in Albany before Judge Mae D'Agostino. In addition to the $25,000 settlement, the terms of the deal call for a meeting between representatives from the group and incoming Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti to discuss how the department will handle similar issues going forward.

"It's one thing to give the plaintiffs some money," said Bergstein. "It's another to have the chief entertain feedback from the plaintiff to prevent this from happening again."

The lawsuit stems from a May 2008 incident at a rally organized by the Ulster County Jewish Federation to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. About a dozen members of MECR showed up at Gallo Park in downtown Kingston to stage a counter-demonstration. When a shouting match erupted between the two sides, Bergstein said, Kingston cops resolved the situation by removing the MECR contingent from the park and moving them to a spot between Mariner's Harbor restaurant -- out of sight of the pro-Israel faction. When a few of the counter-demonstrators tried to return to Gallo Park individually to pass out leaflets, they were escorted out by police. Bergstein added that the MECR supporters were misled by police to believe that the park was not open to the public for the duration of the rally.

Bergstein said that police overreacted to the heated verbal exchange between the factions and in so doing violated the activists' rights to make their views known.

"I really feel like the police jumped the gun," said Bergstein, who noted that most of the MECR contingent was over age 60. "There was no threat to physical safety."

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