Sunday, August 7, 2011

County limits free speech to 3'x3' space ... in woods

Restriction blasted as 'most unconstitutional zone ever'

By Drew Zahn

'Free Speech Zone,' painted orange at Linden County Park
A Michigan woman is suing her county over limiting her petition gathering to a 3-by-3-foot square of ground in a 135-acre park, a restriction one attorney said is in the running for the title of the "most unconstitutional [free] speech zone ever."

Earlier this summer, The Detroit News reports, Denise Miller sat at a picnic table near the beach at the Linden County Park in Genesee County, Mich., gathering signatures as part of a campaign to recall Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. A park ranger told her she had to leave, and the Genesee County Parks office later confirmed that she needed a permit to petition signatures within the park.

But after she applied for and received the permit, she discovered the parks office had limited her to a tiny "Freedom of Speech Area" that she says is located 20 feet from a remote corner of a parking lot and far from foot traffic.
Just in case she couldn't find the designated 3-by-3 foot zone, parks officials spray-painted an orange box in the grass to mark the spot.

Now the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh to strike down both the ban on petitioning without a permit and the rule restricting petitioning to the "Freedom of Speech Area."

"In a free society, citizens do not need the government’s permission to simply petition in a public park," said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director, in a statement. "Barring petitioning anywhere in a 135-acre park except for a tiny, isolated spot is a particularly egregious violation of the First Amendment."

(Story continues below...)

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Attorney Heater Gebelin Hacker of the Alliance Defense Fund, agrees with the ACLU's assessment, writing in a blog post that the park's decision may be in the running to win "the title of 'Most Unconstitutional Speech Zone Ever.'"

According to the ACLU's lawsuit, the restrictions placed on Miller were even more limited: The permit only allowed her to petition from July 1 to August 1, 2011, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., even though the park is open until 9 p.m. in the summer. Furthermore, her sign announcing the petition was to be placed within 10 feet of the orange square in the woods, while other groups' activity signs – such as those offering directions for birthday parties and family reunions – are routinely placed more than 100 feet away.

Parks Commission Director Amy McMillan told reporters at the news site that the commission was merely following a process laid out by legal counsel.

"We have followed that process and believe in its compliance with the U.S. Constitution and State of Michigan laws," McMillan said.

The ACLU, however, disagrees.

"No question, it's a First Amendment violation," Steinberg said. "This lawsuit is critically important to the long-held principle that government can't interfere with core political speech in traditional public forums like public parks and public streets."

He continued, "Not everyone will agree with this political campaign, but we can all agree that public officials should not be in the business of silencing citizens."