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Changes in city’s disorderly conduct law could help target gangs

Updated: December 6, 2012 11:47PM

Chicago’s disorderly conduct ordinance would be softened in one area and strengthened in another — in a way to possibly go after gangs — thanks to a rewrite advanced Thursday after aldermen were assured that “First Amendment rights are not absolute.”

Four years ago, Buddy Bell and two others were folding banners at Dearborn and Jackson while protesting the Iraq War when Chicago Police officers instructed them to move out of the street.

Bell and his co-horts refused, got arrested for disorderly conduct, then challenged that portion of the ordinance that required people to disperse if they were committing an act likely to cause “serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.”

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court vacated the arrests and ruled that the “inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” language was unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee agreed to strike that clause and two others dealing with labor picketing that were overturned in 1972, but never stricken.

While city attorneys were “under the hood” of the ordinance, as Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine put it, they added a new section that could give police a powerful new tool to use against gang loitering and the violence associated with gang funerals.

It permits disorderly conduct arrests when a person fails to obey dispersal orders “necessary to allow public safety officials to address a situation that threatens the public health, safety or welfare.”

Levine called it a “useful tool to address a significant variety” of situations where there is “no hostile conduct” but simply “a crowd of people gathered where they shouldn’t be and police or fire need to move them.”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Benna Solomon assured aldermen concerned about another legal challenge that, “First Amendment rights are not absolute” and that there is “virtually no opportunity for misuse” of the new language.

“If you were...having a heart attack in the middle of Taste of Chicago, you would want to make sure that ambulance could get to you as quickly as possible,” Solomon said.

“The idea that any other person has a First Amendment right to stand where he is standing just because he’s been there...or because he wants to and prevent the ambulance from getting through is not a proper use of First Amendment rights.”

Aldermen struggling to control neighborhood violence welcomed the new language.

“We have gang wars going on throughout the city. An assembly of people brings on the retaliatory violence from a rival gang — whether it’s at a funeral or whether it’s three people in front of an L station or on the corner,” said Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).

“Giving the police the correct tools and having them use this law in an effective way to disperse people potentially harmful can help us throughout the city dealing with some of the gang violence.”

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago Police officer, called the new language a potential “game-changer” and urged the Police Department to explain it at video roll calls.

“This will be a strong tool that will be used by officers out on the street to help some of the neighborhoods having challenges,” Cochran said.

The overhaul of the city’s disorderly conduct ordinance follows a string of defeats for Mayor Rahm Emanuel on the First Amendment front.

In late September, a Circuit Court judge ruled that the city violated the First Amendment rights of hundreds of Occupy Chicago protesters who were arrested in October, 2011, when they refused to leave Grant Park at its 11 p.m. closing time.

Judge Thomas More Donnelly threw out charges against 92 of the demonstrators, saying the curfew law used against them was unconstitutional and violated their right of free assembly.

Emanuel also squared off against protesters before the NATO Summit. He tried to impose strict rules and fines governing public protests before softening those rules under pressure from aldermen.

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