Activist Groups File Lawsuit Challenging Free Speech Restrictions at Lawyers' Mall
Suit Challenges as Unconstitutional State Regulation
Blocking Solicitation During Demonstrations
ANNAPOLIS - Challenging unconstitutional free speech restrictions at the state's most iconic public forum, Lawyers' Mall in Annapolis, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland has joined with several Anne Arundel-based activist groups to file suit challenging a Maryland regulation that prohibits soliciting donations on state grounds. In addition, the groups are seeking a preliminary injunction to block the regulation while the challenge proceeds, since the 2018 General Assembly session is happening now and there are almost daily demonstrations happening on a wide variety of issues being held on Lawyers' Mall.
"Our constitutional right to free speech is a cornerstone of our daily lives," said Eve Hurwitz, Director of March on Maryland. "When it is infringed upon, it behooves us to speak out. We are doing this for those without the power to speak, for those without the privilege to speak, and for those who are no longer able to speak."
There were at least two instances of the unconstitutional regulation being applied this past Fall. First, March on Maryland and Indivisible organized a March for Racial Justice in Annapolis and were blocked from selling tickets during the rally to the Fannie Lou Hamer Awards dinner scheduled for later that day in Annapolis. Second, March on Maryland, Anne Arundel County Indivisible, and the Caucus of African American Leaders sought to organize a candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas and to raise funds to help cover medical costs for a victim from Anne Arundel County, but they were blocked from doing so by Department of General Services police, citing rules prohibiting solicitation on state grounds.
"The DGS regulations are an abridgment of the public's freedom of speech rights," said Carl Snowden, Convenor of the Caucus of African American Leaders. "We are glad to litigate this issue in order to ensure that no one's civil liberties are compromised."
Constitutional speech protections are at their highest in areas that the public historically and traditionally has used to engage in the sharing of ideas and information. Graced by a statue of constitutional hero Thurgood Marshall, Lawyers' Mall historically has served as an open forum for public use in statehouse demonstrations, protests and gatherings, and thus is clearly a "traditional public forum" that allows the broadest free expression. Furthermore, the Supreme Court long ago ruled that political soliciting and solicitation of monetary donations constitute protected speech under the First Amendment. Yet both are prohibited by the DGS rule.
"Protests and rallies happen almost daily on Lawyer's Mall in Annapolis, but the organizers and hosts of those demonstrations are currently blocked from asking participants to financially support a political cause or even make a donation to help cover costs of holding the event," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "It is an egregious affront to the Constitution for the state to block Marylanders from exercising their First Amendment rights on the grounds of Maryland's quintessential site for vigils, rallies, and demonstrations, right there in Thurgood Marshall's shadow."
The ACLU wrote to DGS in February asking them to act voluntarily, but DGS officials refused.
Plaintiffs March on Maryland Inc., Anne Arundel County Indivisible Coalition, the Caucus of African American Leaders, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, Eve Hurwitz, Monica Lindsey, Yasemin Jamison, Vickie Gipson, and Carl Snowden are represented by Hughes Hubbard & Reed, LLP, and by Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.