Judge Refuses To Give Special Treatment To NYC Fire, Police Protests

NEW YORK (AP) -- A judge Wednesday said he did not see First Amendment reasons to set guidelines for how the city should treat unions representing police officers and firefighters at rallies where they draw attention to their stalled contract talks.

U.S. District Judge Gerard E. Lynch ruled after listening to both sides argue the merits of a lawsuit filed earlier in the day by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, among other groups.

The Manhattan jurist said the plaintiffs had not proven a likelihood that they would prevail in the case, a requirement if he were to issue an emergency order affecting demonstrations at the Republican National Convention next week.

The ruling came the same day that a state court judge, acting in a separate lawsuit, sided with the city against an anti-war group that wanted a permit to stage a rally in Central Park.

The unions' lawsuit charged that the city has repeatedly blocked small groups of protesters from getting close enough to Mayor Michael Bloomberg or the public to get their message across.

The groups said the issue has become critical now because the Republican convention provides ``an ideal forum'' to tell the public that police and firefighters have been working without a collective bargaining agreement for almost two years.

Gail Donoghue, special counsel in the city law department, argued the judge should not grant special treatment in the form of a court order for police and firefighters seeking to demonstrate.

She said there might be a lot of anger directed toward the mayor in the next week and an order limiting the distance people can be kept from the mayor to as little as 15 feet ``would be ghastly under these circumstances.''

``Whatever your honor does today would apply to everyone who's going to be in New York next week to demonstrate,'' Donoghue warned.

Judge Lynch said the plaintiffs had not made an adequate showing that their First Amendment rights were violated.

He noted, also, that the city was already meeting many of the demands, such as permitting demonstrators to get within sight and sound of the targets of the demonstrations.

``To order the city, in effect, to do what it says it's doing anyway would be unnecessary and excessive,'' he said from the bench.

He also declined to order the city to stop the police department's Internal Affairs unit from videotaping demonstrators, though he cautioned that he had ``considerable concern about what might be done with these tapes.''

He said the issue could be explored in further proceedings.

In recent weeks, the police and fire unions have staged several demonstrations and shadowed Bloomberg wherever he goes including staging a rally outside his home in the middle of the night.

The state Public Employment Relations Board has ordered the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the city to resolve its dispute through binding arbitration, an option also open to firefighters.