By Paul Kirby, Freeman staff
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KINGSTON - A group has filed a lawsuit against the city of Kingston, saying its right to protest in a city park was violated when police kicked demonstrators out during a local celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary.
Attorney Stephen Bergstein, representing the group Middle East Crisis Response, said on Tuesday that the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Albany, alleges the group was denied its First Amendment rights to assembly and free speech when members of the Kingston Police Department on May 4 ordered the demonstrators out of T.R. Gallo Park, where the celebration was being held.
The group, comprising about eight people, was protesting policies of Israel and the United States.
"The bedrock principle of American constitutional law is that public parks and sidewalks are free-speech zones," Bergstein said in a prepared statement. "The government can not pick and choose which advocacy groups may use the areas and which cannot."
City Police Chief Gerald Keller said it is the policy of the department not to comment on pending lawsuits. He referred questions about the legal action to the city attorney's office.
Mayor James Sottile said he supported the police department's decision to separate the Middle East Crisis Response protesters from people participating in the Israel celebration. Sottile said the action was taken in the interest of public safety.
"I believe the police officers (acted as they did) for public safety purposes," Sottile said. "But they (the protesters) were certainly heard. Their message was heard loud and clear."
The protesters were allowed to continue their demonstration in a parking area near the Rondout Creek waterfront, not far from the Israel festival, after being ordered out of the park.
Bergstein said the parking area was "ill-suited" to engage "the public in meaningful dialogue about this important matter of public concern."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages, Bergstein said. But he said the group is more interested in having Kingston change its first-come, first-served policy regarding the use of city parks.
"There was ample room for the (protesters) to peacefully assemble at Gallo Park, and the city had no right to expel them," the attorney said.
©Daily Freeman 2008