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Civil libertarians challenge Anchorage sidewalk-sitting ban

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Civil libertarians filed suit in Alaska on Thursday to challenge an Anchorage ban on sitting or lying on public sidewalks they said was enacted partly as a response to one man's prolonged protest outside City Hall.

The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, called the 2011 ordinance a violation of the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. The suit also targets a related ban on panhandling in downtown Anchorage.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said both prohibitions chill traditional political activity, such as union pickets, as well as artistic expression.

"We don't want Alaskans to have to wonder, if they go out on the sidewalk to engage in fundraising or to engage in political speech, if they're going to be arrested or not," he said.

The exception to the sidewalk-sitting ban - for commercial activities such as street-food vending - is evidence of the law's flaws, Mittman said. Courts usually grant broader protections to political speech than to commercial activities, he said.

The suit was filed on behalf of a local street musician and performance artist, a 95-year-old peace activist, labor unions, an Alaska Libertarian Party leader and other politically active individuals.

"They wish, as part of their expressive conduct, to be able to sit and lay on the downtown sidewalks and to seek donations free from the threat of municipal sanction," says the complaint, which seeks an injunction to block the law.

Not represented as a plaintiff is the person whose actions inspired the ordinance, John Martin, who spent much of the past two years camping on a downtown street corner to protest what he said was Mayor Dan Sullivan's insensitivity to homeless people.

Martin's critics, who at times included the mayor, said he was creating a public nuisance and hazard to sidewalk traffic.

Anchorage Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler said he could not comment immediately on the claims made in the lawsuit. "We just got the copy. We haven't had a chance to analyze it," he said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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