Free Speech Rights in Privately Managed Public Spaces

January 25, 2016

Originally created in the early 1800s, Campus Martius is a public park in downtown Detroit that advertises itself as “Detroit’s Gathering Place.”  However, the city outsourced management of this space to a private organization that did not allow citizens to engage in classic First Amendment activity such as silent marches to protest war, handing out leaflets about political events, and collecting signatures on petitions.  When the anti-foreclosure group Moratorium Now! attempted to circulate a petition and distribute political leaflets in Campus Martius criticizing the Detroit bankruptcy, they were prevented from doing so by private security guards and the Detroit police. 

Similarly, when the anti-war group Women in Black attempted to march silently through Campus Martius and distribute leaflets describing their anti-war principles, they were stopped by a private security guard who had been hired to patrol the area.  In January 2015 the ACLU of Michigan filed suit, arguing that the First Amendment applies in all publicly owned parks regardless of whether they are managed by a private entity and patrolled by private security guards. 

In December 2015 the Detroit City Council agreed to enact an ordinance that expands the right to leaflet, petition and march throughout the city, including in Campus Martius and all privately managed public parks.  The case settled in January 2016 when the city agreed to pay damages and attorneys’ fees. 

(Moratorium Now! v. Detroit 300 Conservancy; ACLU Attorneys Brooke Tucker and Michael J. Steinberg; Cooperating Attorney Christine Hopkins.)

To view the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket, click here.