Detroit Police Silence Pro-Life Speech at Democrat Debates; Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed

(Detroit, Michigan)—Today, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Detroit and several City police officers, challenging their enforcement of various restrictions that prohibited pro-lifers from engaging in free speech activity during the Democrat presidential candidate debates held this past July at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of Created Equal and its Founder Mark Harrington.

The complaint alleges that the City and several of its police officers violated the pro-lifers’ fundamental rights protected by the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

More specifically, during the two days of the debates (July 30 & 31), the City imposed draconian restrictions that prevented anyone with a message that conflicted with the policies of the Democrat candidates, particularly messages that conflicted with the candidates’ radical pro-abortion policies, from reaching the debate participants and attendees.

AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise commented:

The right to freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment is not a right to catharsis.  It is a right to meaningfully express one’s message in order to influence public opinion and to affect public policy.  Not surprisingly, the liberal City of Detroit imposed restrictions that had the intended effect of sanitizing and cleansing the areas immediately in front of and adjacent to the Fox Theatre of any messages that were critical of the Democrat presidential candidates and the positions and policies they supported.  In particular, these restrictions ensured that our clients’ message, specifically including their pro-life signs, would be hidden from the CNN camera shots, the viewers of the debates, the candidates, and those who attended the Fox Theatre for the debates.  Our Constitution does not permit such treatment.”

As summarized in the lawsuit:

  • The City created and enforced an overbroad and unreasonable “restricted area” that prevented the pro-lifers from engaging in free speech activity in traditional public forums. The restriction was not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and it did not leave open ample alternative channels of communications to permit the pro-lifers to reach their intended audiences with their message.
  • Police officers enforced the City’s unlawful speech restriction by (1) dividing protestors based on the content and viewpoint of their message, (2) designating the areas that speakers were permitted to engage in their free speech activity based on the content and viewpoint of their message, and (3) giving a favorable location to those speakers who supported the views of the Democrat presidential candidates and an unfavorable location to those, including the pro-lifers, who opposed the views of the candidates.

The City’s unlawful speech restrictions ensured that the pro-lifers’ powerful message conveyed by their signs was far enough away from the Fox Theatre that the message was hidden from the view of the candidates, the debate attendees, and the media coverage of the debate.

At one point, Mark Harrington and the pro-lifers attempted to get as close to the Fox Theatre as possible without breaching the City’s overbroad “restricted area” by crossing a church parking lot that was being used by multiple media outlets and other protestors.  Despite the fact that others were permitted on this property, City police officers stopped Harrington and his colleagues and told them to leave.  When Harrington protested, City police officers seized him and put him in handcuffs.

Shortly after his seizure, Harrington agreed to leave the area, so the officers released him from their custody.  The order to seize Harrington came from the Police Commander on the scene.  The officers did not have probable cause or any other lawful authority for seizing Harrington, in direct violation of the pro-lifer’s rights protected by the Fourth Amendment.  This seizure was an obvious effort to intimidate the pro-lifers into compliance with the City’s unlawful speech restrictions.

AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel David Yerushalmi added:

As the presidential race heats up, there is little doubt that cities across the country, particularly those like Detroit that lean heavily toward the Democrats, will attempt to silence protestors who oppose the radical policies of the Democrat candidates.  By filing this lawsuit, we hope to not only put a stop to such illicit practices in Detroit, but to send a warning to other cities that might attempt to employ similar police state tactics that we will not stand idly by as you trample on our freedoms.”