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Vermont Community Law Center offers protesters free legal help

Published: Sep. 5, 2020 at 8:44 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 5, 2020 at 11:21 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Black Lives Matter protesters now have the support of the Vermont Community Law Center.

On Saturday, the agency announced it is offering free legal assistance to the protesters who have been camping out in Battery Park and marching in the streets for almost two weeks.

Managing attorney and constitutional law expert Jared K. Carter says “the First Amendment is first for a reason. It makes clear that peaceful assembly, speech, and protest are fundamental rights and cannot be abridged by unreasonable government actions.”

“We might not all agree on the positions or demands or all of the demands the protesters are staking out, but their Constitutional rights to do that is fundamental to our functioning democracy if it’s going to function at all,” Carter said.

Carter says the VCLC is also encouraging local, state and federal law enforcement authorities to not infringe on protesters’ rights. He says protesters are acting within their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly, as well as expressive conduct.

Expressive conduct is defined as behavior designed to convey a message; its function as speech means that it has increasingly been protected by the First Amendment.

“So if camping at a public park in front of the police department is part of that expressive conduct, certainly an argument can be made that that is protected as well,” Carter explained.

One thing that the First Amendment does not protect is blocking traffic or taking over city streets. Carter says the city of Burlington does have the authority to impose time, place and manner restrictions, as long as they’re reasonable. The city would also have to offer alternative ways to protest.

In a letter issued on Friday, Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, warns protesters camping is not permitted in Battery Park and police can issue noise violations in accordance with city ordinances.

“And again, if camping in Battery Park across from the police department is deemed expressive conduct, say, by a court, then the city couldn’t infringe on that in many instances,” Carter said.

The Vermont Community Law Center will also offer virtual “Know Your Rights” training to members of the public.

WCAX News stopped by the encampment to talk to protesters and see how they feel about being offered legal assistance. They refused to speak to WCAX again.

Across the street, a small group of pro-police supporters gathered outside of the police department, waving “Thank You, BPD” signs and Thin Blue Line flags. WCAX asked them how they feel about protesters’ demands for Officers Jason Bellavance, Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow to be fired.

“I can understand the demands and respect the demands but they are misguided,” said Paul DeCelles. “We do have due process in Burlington. There’s the city council and the mayor. Their frustration, to me, is ironic that it’s with the mayor and the police department. The City Council is the body that can make these changes.”

City Council’s six progressives announced they are planning to write up a draft charter proposal to address police officer misconduct and discipline.

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