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Convention plan puts protesters blocks away

Protesters at this summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston may be confined to a cozy triangle of land off Haymarket Square, blocked off from the FleetCenter and convention delegates by a maze of Central Artery service roads, MBTA train tracks, and a temporary parking lot holding scores of buses and media trucks.

Under a preliminary plan floated by convention organizers, the "free-speech zone" would be a small plot bounded by Green Line tracks and North Washington Street, in an area that until recently was given over to the elevated artery. The zone would hold as few as 400 of the several thousand protesters who are expected in Boston in late July.

"The area looks a little silly, to be honest with you," said Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild's Massachusetts chapter. "People will not be able to express their concerns with whatever will be happening, because no one will have access to delegates. No one will be heard, and the area is just too small."

Officials with the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU of Massachusetts plan to meet with Boston Police Department representatives in the weeks to come to ask that the plan be changed. Boston police say no final decisions will be made for months, and stressed that they're open to input.

The disappointment in the preliminary plans is likely to be the start of a protracted battle that has the potential to end up in court, as did a similar dispute at the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Relegated to a parking lot blocks from the convention arena, protesters sued, and less than a month before that convention began, a federal judge ruled that the designated area was unconstitutional. Organizers were forced to move the area to a parking lot directly across the street from an arena entrance, in keeping with earlier federal court rulings that any legal demonstration be allowed within "sight and sound" of its intended audience.

In New York City, where the Republicans will hold their convention this year, police are anticipating tens of thousands of protesters. No plans have been made for where protests will be allowed, but civil liberties groups have already raised concerns about potential police tactics.

Some observers have predicted fewer protesters in Boston, in part because many of the groups that targeted delegates in Los Angeles are united in their dislike of President Bush. Still, civil liberties groups anticipate several thousand protesters here, with the war in Iraq, trade, and the environment among their top issues. In addition, several city unions -- most notably the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association -- are threatening to picket outside the convention if their contracts with the city aren't settled by July.

Being tucked into a small lot, where views of the FleetCenter are likely to be blocked by buses and a forest of TV satelite trucks would render demonstrations virtually worthless, protest advocates said.

"What's the point to just have a rally, when you don't have an audience for whom the rally is organized?" Masny-Latos said.

Mariellen Burns, a spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, said convention organizers will place protesters within sight and sound of delegates, but that the dense urban setting around the FleetCenter makes that task difficult. There are few large open areas near the building, which is in the middle of a busy business district and transportation hub, she said.

"Our first priority is public safety, but people have a right to come and be heard, and we totally understand that, and we're supportive of that," Burns said.

Convention organizers plan to ask groups who wish to protest near the FleetCenter to apply for permits that would allow them into the free-speech zone at designated times. Protesters will be allowed outside the zone, but civil liberties groups say those outside the designated area are likely to be given less leeway in staging demonstrations. Police say they have not yet determined policies about protesters outside the zone.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that if the preliminary "free-speech zone" is the only area protesters can use without fear of arrest or harassment, it will almost certainly be challenged in court.

"We don't want it to be a free-speech pen," Rose said.

She said the ACLU will push instead for a range of areas, situated in such a way that delegates have to walk past them on their way into the FleetCenter.

Rose said she would like small groups of protesters to be allowed to rotate into the immediate vicinity of the FleetCenter, in the area convention organizers want to restrict to credentialed delegates, convention workers, and media. In addition, security fences should be transparent, so those holding signs outside can be seen and heard, she said.

"The more outlets for speech that can be created, the better the convention will go, and the fewer legal issues there will be," Rose said.

Burns said Boston police are committed to accommodating protesters. "You have to find a balance of doing it in the best way to maintain order," she said.

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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