The Town of Hempstead Democratic Committee has taken Nassau police and Hempstead Town to court over the denial of a request by the Democrats to hold a rally outside Hofstra University during this month's presidential debate.
The Democratic committee alleges police and officials in the Republican-controlled town denied them a necessary "parade permit" that would have allowed about 500 members to gather outside the university's gates on Oct. 16 in support of President Barack Obama.
The Democrats filed an order to show cause against the town and police in Supreme Court in Nassau County in an attempt to get the permit. Justice Joel Asarch heard arguments Thursday and is expected to make a ruling soon.
Nassau police advised the town via a letter dated July 20 to deny any public assembly requests -- from any group -- in the vicinity of Hofstra from Oct. 12 to 16.
Town officials then informed the Democrats their request to assemble would be denied, said Gary Carlton of Valley Stream, a member of the Democratic committee and the attorney representing the group.
"This is a First Amendment freedom of assembly argument," Carlton said.
Insp. Kenneth Lack, commanding officer for Nassau police's public information office, said the Democrats should use a designated "public area," about one-fifth of a mile east of Hofstra's gates on Hempstead Turnpike. Nassau police worked with the Secret Service to set up the area, county officials said.
"We in the Nassau County police realize there is a balancing act between public safety and civil liberties and free speech," Lack said.
Hempstead spokesman Mike Deery said the town never formally denied the Democrats' request because it never received an official application; the Democrats made their request via phone, according to court papers. Deery said no groups have formally requested a permit.
Nassau police "have assembled a plan for security and safety" and the town is "going to be guided by that," he said.
Carlton said the committee has not registered with Hofstra to use the public area. A dozen groups have done so, said Hofstra spokeswoman Karla Schuster, who declined to comment on the court case.
Public assembly became an issue at the 2008 presidential debate at Hofstra, where anti-war protester Nicholas Morgan of Washington, D.C., was among 15 people charged with disorderly conduct after a melee with police. Morgan, one of two people injured in the fracas, said he was kicked in the head by a mounted Nassau County police horse, but Nassau police said it was unclear how Morgan was hurt.