Staff Reporter of the SunDecember 12, 2006
A federal judge has told the city it is not entitled to the membership information of a pacifist organization because such disclosure could deter the group's members from participating in future political activities.
The dispute over whether the local chapter of the War Resisters League must turn over notes from three of its meetings arises in connection with several lawsuits over the mass arrests of protesters during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. Lawyers for the city, who subpoenaed the organization in 2005, have said in court that a copy of the meeting minutes could show what certain plaintiffs knew about the group's plans for an anti-war march that took place on August 31, 2004.
Police stopped the march on Fulton Street as it got under way, arresting 227 participants. Hundreds of the more than 1,800 protesters arrested during the convention weekend have sued the city.
The lawsuits are mired amid subpoenas and depositions. But the city's subpoena of the War Resisters League is unusual, because the city rarely subpoenas political organizations, several lawyers for the plaintiffs have said in interviews.
The city already has received redacted minutes from three league meetings held in the five weeks before the demonstration, according to the decision by the magistrate judge, James Francis IV of U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Those copies do not contain the names of those present at the meetings or any political remarks extraneous to the planning of the march, according to the decision, which was released late last week.
Judge Francis ruled that the city had little need for any of the redacted information, including the names of members. Judge Francis noted that several of the organization's members had submitted affidavits about alleged government efforts in previous decades to monitor the War Resisters League and harass its membership.
In the wake of such a history, Judge Francis wrote: "It is therefore reasonable to believe that potential WRL members would be deterred from joining, and current members dissuaded from active participation, if they thought that their membership in the organization would be made public."
A city organizer for the league and a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, Ed Hedemann, said he believed the city's efforts to get the meeting minutes were part of a legal strategy aimed at making it difficult for the plaintiffs to going ahead with the lawsuits.
"But I also think this might have been to chill dissent," Mr. Hedemann said.
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN