State Anti-Mask Law Violates Right to Speech

October 18, 2000

The ACLU of Michigan and National Lawyer's Guild today filed a motion to dismiss charges levied against 13 protesters for wearing Lone Ranger masks during a June demonstration protesting air quality in downtown Detroit held at the same time as meetings of the Organization of American States in Windsor.

The defendants were arrested while peacefully protesting in downtown Detroit and charged with violating a law – MCL 750.496 – that prohibits the wearing of a mask for any political purpose regardless of whether the wearer intends to violate another law, but allows the wearing of masks for entertainment, educational, religious or historical purposes. 

"This law is clearly unconstitutional because it infringes on the rights of people to protest peacefully, said ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss."   "The right to protest is a fundamental constitutional right.  It is at exactly like moments like this, when people feel compelled to take to the streets to voice their opposition about pressing social issues, that the limits of our democracy are tested.  It is exactly at moments like this when the values embodied in our Constitution are tested.  We know that we have passed that test only when we can hear - in the press, on the streets, in our city council chambers – the many different voices that make up this nation.  We should rise to the challenge."

The motion to dismiss states that law is vague and overbroad, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Under this law, it does not matter whether the mask is worn as part of expression of a political message alone or is worn with the intent to commit an illegal act; the law makes no distinction and criminalizes either type of conduct. 

ACLU Cooperating Attorney Kenneth Mogill stated: "The First Amendment is not confined to verbal utterances; rather, the Supreme Court has confirmed again and again that symbolic speech is equally protected.  This extends to the right to anonymity, if a citizen so chooses."  As the Supreme Court has said: "Inviolability of privacy in group association may in circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs."

A hearing has been set for Wednesday, October 25, in the 36th District Court before Judge Paula G. Humphries.

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