ACLU, Detroit Agree on Interim Rules to Protect Free Speech in Public Parks

April 08, 2015

DETROIT -- In an effort to settle an ACLU of Michigan lawsuit that accuses the private groups that manage and secure Detroit’s Campus Martius Park of illegally banning activists, the City of Detroit agreed on Thursday to immediately implement a series of interim rules designed to safeguard free-speech rights at all of its public parks.

“These new rules represent a victory for the free speech rights of Detroiters,” said Brooke Tucker, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, which filed the federal suit in January against the privately owned Detroit 300 Conservancy nonprofit that manages Campus Martius and the privately owned Guardsmark security firm that patrols the downtown park. “Public parks belong to the people, irrespective of who manages or secures them. We’re very pleased that the City of Detroit has acknowledged the fundamental right of people to gather and express themselves in public spaces and that it is working with us proactively to ensure that the right is respected throughout the city.”

The city’s policy, outlined in an opinion from the city attorney that was issued today, was negotiated with the ACLU after it sued on behalf of two social justice organizations that had been denied access to the park in separate incidents. Among the new rules:

  • Groups of up to 25 people will be allowed to demonstrate, petition or leaflet in Campus Martius without a permit; in other parks, those groups can be as large as 45 people.
  • Even when a group does not seek a permit in advance of political activity, Detroit police officers will be directed to issue an “instant permit” for any group whose numbers exceed the size limits, as long as the group’s activities are not likely to cause harm to others, impede traffic, or interfere with other scheduled park events.
  • When required, permit fees to use any city park will be waived if applicants can’t afford them.
  • City police officers and private managers of parks will be trained to make sure they follow the new guidelines.

All city departments and private entities contracted by the city to manage public parks will be obligated to follow the new guidelines, which are expected to be posted to the City of Detroit website, the Campus Martius website and at Campus Martius itself. Further, the Detroit City Council is expected to consider an ordinance based on the new rules within the upcoming months.

Although the city is not a defendant in the lawsuit, it is representing a Detroit police officer who was also named in the lawsuit and, thus, introduced the interim measures as part of its settlement efforts.

The suit has not yet been dismissed, however. Tucker said that the ACLU will continue to monitor the implementation of the new rules and stands ready to litigate the case if, for some reason, the Detroit City Council does not make the interim rules permanent by incorporating them into an ordinance.

The ACLU of Michigan filed the lawsuit on behalf of Moratorium Now, a group fighting against foreclosures, and members of the anti-violence organization Women in Black-Detroit, arguing that the Detroit 300 Conservancy violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights by prohibiting them from petitioning, leafleting or protesting at the downtown park.

In 2014, Moratorium Now members went to Campus Martius to pass out fliers and gather petitions opposing Detroit’s bankruptcy. But moments after they arrived and began soliciting signatures and distributing fliers near the southern end of Campus Martius by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, they were approached by a Guardsmark security officer who ordered them to leave the park or risk arrest. He told them that petitioning and leafleting were not allowed in the park.

In 2013, members of Women in Black-Detroit, were confronted by Campus Martius security as they tried to march single file without speaking through the park as part of a protest against war, domestic abuse and other forms of violence. The guard forbade them from walking through the park and prevented them from passing out political leaflets.
The lawsuit further claims that a privately owned surveillance center in downtown Detroit operated by Rock Ventures snooped on the activists’ social media accounts and provided information about their activities to the conservancy and Guardsmark, the security firm employed to help enforce the unconstitutional bans. Rock Ventures is the parent company of Quicken Loans.

The suit is part of an ongoing effort by the ACLU of Michigan to compel private companies managing public properties to respect constitutional freedoms. In 2013, the ACLU of Michigan wrote to the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy (DRFC) urging it end its practice of preventing demonstrators from exercising their free speech rights on the publicly owned RiverWalk. Although DRFC responded and claimed that it would amend its policies, security guards attempted to prevent Women in Black from marching and carrying signs on the RiverWalk in 2014.

Plaintiffs in the case are being represented by ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael Steinberg, staff attorney Brooke Tucker and cooperating attorneys Christina Hopkins and Raymond Sterling, both of Sterling Attorneys at Law.

Read the City of Detroit Corporation Counsel Opinion and interim rules.

Read the City of Detroit's Corporation Counsel letter to the ACLU agreeing to the new rules.

Read more about the case.