ACLU Sues Genesee County Parks Over Petitioning Restrictions

July 18, 2011

DETROIT – In a free speech case with statewide implications, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sued the Genesee County Parks today after it told a petitioner with the Committee to Recall Governor Snyder that the only place she could petition in a 135-acre park was an isolated 3 x 3 foot area. The ACLU is also challenging the constitutionality of Genesee County Parks’ new policy barring petitioning in the public parks without a permit.

Download an image of the designated "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. “Barring petitioning anywhere in a 135-acre park except for a tiny, isolated spot is a particularly egregious violation of the First Amendment.”

In early June, Denise Miller, a volunteer with the Committee to Recall Governor Rick Snyder, was collecting petition signatures at a picnic table at Linden County Park when she was approached by a park ranger who told her to leave. After she left, she called the Genesee County Parks Department to find out why she was not allowed to petition in the park. Eventually, she was told that she would be allowed if she first obtained a permit.

After a delay of more than two weeks, Miller received a permit, but the permit did not allow her to petition near the pathway and stairs to the beach as she had requested. Rather, the parks department had designated a so-called “Freedom of Speech Area” in a grassy area past the far corner of a parking lot where there was virtually no foot traffic.

Park personnel even painted a 3 x 3 foot orange square on the ground indicating the only place Miller could petition. In addition, 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, she was instructed that her sign was to be placed within 10 feet of the orange square. Other signs in the park, however, are routinely placed more than 100 feet away from specific activities, including signs directing people to birthday parties and family reunions.

“This case is not just about our clients in Genesee County,” said Steinberg. “All throughout the state we’ve heard from recall volunteers who have hit roadblocks when attempting to exercise their fundamental right to petition in traditional public forums such as public parks and sidewalks. 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.”

Today’s lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and was assigned to Judge George Caram Steeh. The ACLU will ask the court for an order striking down the ban on petitioning without a permit and the ban on petitioning outside the so-called “Freedom of Speech Area.”

In addition to Steinberg, Miller and co-plaintiff James Bryant are represented by Dan Korobkin of the ACLU of Michigan and Glenn Simmington of the law firm Cline Cline & Griffin PC in Flint, Mich.