The Threat of Privatized-Public Spaces on Free Speech

January 29, 2015

The rights to free speech and assembly are indispensable in a functioning democracy, but private public partnerships (PPPs), often constitute states of exception. Two organizations in Detroit – Women in Black and Moratorium NOW! – have been denied the right to leaflet and petition along Detroit’s RiverWalk and in Campus Martius as a result of their PPP status as public spaces managed by private entities.

Campus Martius and the RiverWalk are managed by the Detroit 300 Conservancy and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, respectively. Both are private non-profit organizations that use their own security forces to monitor these popular spots in the heart of Detroit.

Cheryl Labash, a member of Moratorium NOW!, a coalition that seeks to foster economic justice in Detroit, is pursuing legal action on the matter with the ACLU. Labash was stopped by a private security guard and unable to freely protest and make public her organization’s concerns last year.

Though public spaces, private security is at liberty to prevent activists and organizations from protesting and speaking in support of their cause as it sees fit.

Labash said, in an interview with the ACLU, “Downtown has basically been sanitized and that’s not what this country says that it’s about...We want to make sure that these opposing views or different views or different narratives of what’s happened in Detroit and the things that are important do have a place in downtown Detroit.”

Campus Martius and the RiverWalk’s private management and security guards can choose, rather arbitrarily, when they object to a protest. It may be worth noting that, Moratorium NOW!, which seeks to bring light to foreclosures, evictions, and utility shutoffs in Detroit. Their mission and interests effectively run counter to the increasing private influence of the city at large.

Similar questions of who is allowed protest in PPPs have arisen elsewhere. Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, a group whose mission it is to fight institutional racism and police brutality, gathered in protest on December 20th at the Mall of America. Mall authorities and the Bloomington police disbanded the protest and stated days later their intentions to pursue criminal charges and seek payment for lost revenue. Though the mall was created in part by and continues to thrive on millions of dollars in public subsidies, its private ownership allows it to criminalize protesters deemed unfit.

For instance, 7,000 protestors were allowed to gather in order to honor the life of a man who had passed as a result of cancer, yet half that number was met with riot gear while mourning the life of Eric Garner.

The denial of public space as a locus for free speech and assembly experienced by Labash and the Women in Black stands to represent the increasing privatization of Detroit - whether it be in the form of water shutoffs, private security, or through the withdrawal of workers’ pensions funding - and the lack of accountability that too often follows when profit and property are privileged over people.

Minneapolis and Detroit are hardly the sole victims of this; the private commandeering of public spaces is becoming an increasingly flagrant phenomenon for urban America at large. The ACLU has worked in Maine as well as New York, as well to ensure that public space can be relied upon as a place of free and unencumbered protest and assembly.

The private management and policing of public spaces puts First Amendment rights in a truly dire position, discounting the potential public dissent has in remedying injustice.

By Sarah Goomar, ACLU Fellow