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ACLU of Wisconsin sues city of Milwaukee over RNC protest rules

Republican National Committee is pushing US Secret Service to move the security perimeter to put more distance between protesters and attendees

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A protester holds a sign that says "Working Families' Lives Matter."
A group organized by the Service Employees International Union Wisconsin marches to the Fiserv Forum, the location of the Republican presidential primary debate, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin announced a lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee Thursday which argues the city ordinance related to protests during the week of the Republican National Convention restricts protesters’ rights.

That ordinance, passed by the Milwaukee Common Council in March, requires people wishing to protest near the site of the July event to march along an “officially defined parade route” and limits the time they can do so to seven hours a day. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024, claims the ordinance violates the First Amendment. 

“Those limitations violate the First Amendment rights of expression and assembly of both the Coalition (Coalition to March of the RNC 2024) and any other group that plans to be protesting during the time of the convention,” said Tim Muth, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

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Organizers with the Coalition to March expect more than 1,000 people to attend a protest on the first day of the convention. The city has yet to announce the location where protests can take place, as the U.S. Secret Service has not yet announced the location of the security perimeter for the convention. Protesters will not be allowed inside that perimeter.

Omar Flores (right) with the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024 speaks during a press conference in Milwaukee on June 6, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

Muth said the lawsuit asks the city to approve a parade route within “sight and sound” of Fiserv Forum, the main location of the event.

“So that people attending, the media covering it, will be able to get the message being communicated by the marchers,” Muth said. 

The lawsuit also calls on the city to eliminate any “time, place and manner restrictions” on any protest activities near the convention.

Omar Flores, a leader with the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024, said they submitted their preferred parade route — which goes directly next to Fiserv Forum — to the city. But as of Thursday afternoon, he said their request hadn’t been approved.

“We know what our rights are, and we know that we’re able to be within sight and sound of the Fiserv Forum,” Flores said during a press conference Thursday.

“This is not us trying to flout against the rules, this is us actually trying to play it by the rules, and the city is not letting us,” he added.

The Fiserv Forum has signage for the debate on the walls.
Reporters are set up outside of the Fiserv Forum before the Republican presidential primary debate Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The RNC will take place July 15-18. Past political conventions have drawn large crowds of protesters from around the nation.

Muth said the federal lawsuit — filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin — asks the court to take the case on an “expedited basis.”

“We trust that the court, because of the importance of the issue, will take it up on that basis,” Muth said.

Flores said he wants the group to be allowed to protest along their own parade route, and not what use what he called the city’s “protest pens.”

In response to the lawsuit, Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson for Mayor Cavalier Johnson, said the city is “fully prepared to answer the court filings.”

“We have consistently operated in good faith with all the different groups and individuals who are concerned about the demonstration plans,” Fleming said in a statement.

“Milwaukee takes seriously its responsibility to provide an opportunity for people to express their opinions. The city is also focused on safety for all the people in and around the upcoming convention. We are working to maximize both those priorities,” he added.

The lawsuit comes as the Republican National Committee is also pushing the Secret Service to move the security perimeter for the event to put more distance between protesters and attendees.

Kimberly Cheatle, the director of the U.S. Secret Service, speaks during a press briefing on Thursday, June 6, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

Kimberly Cheatle, director of the Secret Service, was in Milwaukee Thursday to share more details about the security plans for the event. Cheatle said the service will announce the exact location of the security perimeter in about two weeks. 

“We continue to have discussions with the RNC and the Committee on Arrangements and all of our law enforcement partners and we’re making those assessments as necessary,” Cheatle said about any updates to the security perimeter. 

Père Marquette Park was designated by the city as the protest site for the Democratic National Convention in 2020. The park is about a quarter-mile away from Fiserv Forum, and one block away from Baird Center and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena, where other events will be held during the convention. The Republican National Committee has asked for the security perimeter to encapsulate that park so that protesters won’t be allowed to gather there.

Organizers with the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024 are planning a press conference Thursday afternoon to further discuss the lawsuit.

“Party conventions are major political events where Americans have always sought to make their voices heard, so it’s imperative that people can fully and freely exercise their rights,” ACLU of Wisconsin Legal Director Ryan Cox said in a statement. “We call on city leaders to amend this ordinance to ensure it no longer unconstitutionally infringes on First Amendment rights and respects the rights of all individuals to peacefully protest and engage in political expression.” 

 Michael Whatley, the chair of the Republican National Committee, speaks to media in Milwaukee on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

RNC chair says it’s planning for Trump to attend

While unveiling the stage design for the upcoming convention, Michael Whatley, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said it’s planning for former President Donald Trump to be in attendance during the event. 

That’s after Trump was found guilty of 34 felony counts last week. His sentencing is set for July 11, days before the start of the convention. 

“We expect that President Trump will be here to accept the nomination,” Whatley said. “We’re very excited about that. Obviously, if we need to make contingent plans, we will.”

“Right now, we are all steam ahead expecting that he’ll be here to accept the nomination,” he added.

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