Free Speech Press Release

09.26.13

ACLU Warns Defiance Not to Ban Political Chalk Messages on Public Sidewalks

Singling out Political Speech Violates the First Amendment

DEFIANCE, OH – With the 2013 Defiance Halloween parade on the horizon, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has sent a letter to city leaders, warning them that their policy of banning messages written on public sidewalks with temporary chalk violates the First Amendment.

The city made news during the 2012 Halloween season when police ordered local members of the Occupy movement to stop writing on public sidewalks with chalk, stating that the practice was illegal. The group later appeared at a city council meeting with evidence that children were routinely allowed to make chalk drawings on the same sidewalks. The city law director then claimed that the children’s chalk drawings were legal; while the Occupy movement’s political messages written in chalk were against the law because they used words.

“This is a blatantly unconstitutional policy,” said ACLU of Ohio Staff Attorney Drew Dennis. “It is absurd to argue that writing words on a sidewalk—using temporary chalk that washes away the first time it rains— is illegal vandalism, while drawing pictures on the same sidewalk with the same chalk is considered perfectly fine.”

“It is not hard to see what is really happening here,” added Dennis. “City leaders do not like the ideas these people are expressing, so they have manufactured a way to stop them. This is exactly the kind of behavior the First Amendment is intended to prevent.”

The city has outlined a series of additional justifications for preventing the group from writing on public sidewalks with chalk. They include concerns about clutter, property values, and distractions to drivers and pedestrians.

The ACLU letter points out that most, if not all, of these arguments have already been rejected by courts looking at similar cases. Additionally, any one of them could easily be applied to children’s chalk drawings as well, making it even clearer that the city is targeting one group based solely on its political message. The letter concludes by asking officials to adopt a policy that abides by the First Amendment.