Denver, there oughta be a law

You've heard the phrase, "There oughta be a law ... ." Well, it turns out there's not. That's why the city attorney bit his tongue the other day and decided to dismiss charges against 230 protesters who blocked last year's Columbus Day parade.

We think there oughta be a law that protects the right of lawful assembly. The state does have such a statute on the books and Denver should adopt a municipal ordinance to serve a similar purpose in Denver.

Last week, eight leaders of the Oct. 9 Columbus Day protest were acquitted by a jury on charges of failing to obey a lawful police order. Then, on Monday, County Judge Kathleen Bowers dismissed loitering charges against 75 of the protesters. County Judges Aleene Ortiz-White and Doris Burd earlier had dismissed the loitering charges in other cases. The protesters were charged with loitering in the first place because the city has no ordinance that forbids blocking a roadway or interfering with a lawful event. According to City Attorney Cole Finegan, officials are now looking into drafting laws to cover such contingencies.

Under state statute, it is a misdemeanor for a party without authority to obstruct a highway, street, sidewalk or other place used for passage of people, vehicles or conveyances and to disobey a reasonable request to move from a peace officer, firefighter or other person with authority to control the premises.

Also, it is a misdemeanor under state law to disrupt a lawful assembly, which includes any lawful meeting, procession or gathering, by "significantly" obstructing or interfering with the event by "physical action, verbal utterance, or any other means."

The protesters blocked the Columbus Day parade for about 90 minutes. Once it got going, the parade itself only lasted about a quarter of an hour.

Native American and other protesters consider the Columbus Day celebration to be hate speech, contending that Columbus was a slave trader and a killer of Indians. "Our position about Columbus Day - they are not allegations," Glenn Morris said during a press conference Tuesday. "They are not charges against Columbus. What we say about Columbus is historical fact. When I read in the newspaper that we 'allege' or we 'charge' that Columbus engaged in a genocide, that's tantamount to saying that blacks, African-Americans in this country, 'allege' that there was slavery. That's tantamount to saying that Jews 'allege' that 6 million people were killed by Hitler."

The jury saw the case in a political light.

Foreman Eric Ruderman, a lawyer, said the main reason for the acquittals was that the parade contained "strong elements of ethnic intimidation" aimed at Native Americans. "The protesters stood up for what was right," Ruderman said.

Morris, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and a Native American activist, called for the city to work toward abolition of Columbus Day and also to "create an example for Denver, for the state of Colorado and for the country that time for acrimonious, hate-filled cultural celebrations is over." Instead, Morris urged "truly respectful, multiracial, multicultural celebrations that everyone can embrace."

Fellow protester and CU-Boulder professor Ward Churchill told the gathering that the First Amendment doesn't protect hate speech, citing a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows states to ban cross burnings. But burning a cross with the intent to intimidate or instill fear is a far cry from Italian-Americans marching and dancing the tarantella to honor an explorer they consider a hero.

The First Amendment is intended to protect unpopular and offensive ideas and expression. If free speech is to have any meaning, the rights of the Columbus Day parade organizers must be respected - along with the protesters' rights to peacefully protest.

The issue involves more than the Sons of Italy-New Generation's rights - it involves any group with a lawful parade permit. There oughta be a law to protect lawful assembly in Denver - and the city council should lose no time in writing one.