MANHATTAN (CN) – A New York appeals court upheld a 9-foot buffer zone on Thursday against groups that protest horse-drawn carriages in Central Park.
Four individual activists were named as defendants to the underlying complaint, filed last year in Manhattan Supreme Court by the carriage service Central Park Sightseeing.
Represented by the firm Einbinder Dunn & Goniea, the carriage operator estimated that its drivers were confronted by the individual protesters at pick-up and drop-off points up to 40 times over a five-month period.
Two advocacy groups, Friends of Animals and New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets, were also named as defendants.
They appealed to the Appellate Division’s First Judicial Department after Justice Arthur Engoron hit them with an injunction in February 2017.
Citing the “furtherance of public safety,” the court’s order prohibited the protesters from blocking the passage of horse carriages throughout the park roads and onto city streets, obstructing customers from riding on the horse-drawn carriages, leafletting any passenger in a horse carriage.
Though the appellate court upheld many of these terms, it found a 9-foot bubble more accommodating than the “floating buffer zone” from the original order.
Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels wrote the ruling for a four-judge panel. She explained that the 9-foot zone “represents a ‘conversational distance,’ allowing normal communication,” while ensuring the safety of passengers and drivers.
The court also took issue, however, with the blanket prohibition on leafleting.
A more balanced approach, Manzanet-Daniels said, is “to prohibit any person from knowingly approaching another person in the loading/unloading areas without consent for the purpose of handing a leaflet or bill or displaying a sign or engaging in oral protest or education of the other person.”
New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets called today’s decision a “positive ruling.”
“Today’s court win allows NYCLASS to educate New Yorkers about the mistreatment of carriage horses, virtually without restriction,” the group said in a statement. “We hope this prudent decision helps move the city forward on reasonable reforms to protect these animals — after all, the best way to ensure fewer activists at the hackline is to pass the compromise legislation currently before City Council.”
The opinion acknowledges that public sidewalks and streets are “the “quintessential” public fora for free speech, and leafletting, signs, and displays are time-honored methods of communication enjoying First Amendment protection.”
“This modification strikes the appropriate balance between the First Amendment rights of the protestors and the rights of customers and other pedestrians to avoid unwelcome approaches,” Justice Manzanet-Daniels wrote.
Inclusion of the “knowingly approaches” requirement means that protesters will not run afoul of the injunction if they merely stand still along the path of the carriages, holding their signs or literature for passersby to either accept or decline.
“The balance of the equities weighs in [Central Park Sightseeing’s] favor,” the ruling states. “Absent injunctive relief, plaintiff’s business would continue to be harmed, and its drivers, customers, and potential customers, and members of the public would continue to be subjected to harassing and potentially dangerous conduct.”
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher attorney Randy Mastro represented the protesters with help from Joel Kurtzberg and Peter Linken at Cahill Gordon & Reindel. They did not return a request for comment.
James Goniea and Michael Einbinder, who represented Central Park Sightseeing, also did not return a request for comment.