COLUMBUS – Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the city of Columbus in U.S. District Court on behalf of Occupy Columbus. According to the lawsuit, the city targeted political speech, including protests, with a 2012 ordinance specifically designed to make it harder for them to express their messages in public.
“It is unconstitutional for the government to have unfettered discretion to censor speech,” said ACLU of Ohio Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Martinez Atzberger. “This ordinance gives the government the power to suppress political opinions they don't like, without any mechanism for oversight.”
“Nearly everything about the ordinance suggests that it was conceived and passed to suppress the political activity of groups whose message the city does not like,” added Atzberger. “When the government creates financial and logistical roadblocks for certain types of expression, it threatens the First Amendment rights of everyone.”
The ordinance targets any group that uses “structures” like podiums, tables or tents to deliver their political messages. Permit criteria and fee structures under the ordinance are also confusing and vague, allowing the government to arbitrarily pick and choose who is entitled to a permit and how much money they will be required to pay prior to the granting of a permit. Higher permit fees, longer waiting periods for approval, lack of an appeals process, and new criminal penalties for violating the confusing rules make it next to impossible for groups to engage in political expression.
“Standing on ‘the soapbox’ to express political dissent is one of our nation’s most fundamental forms of free speech,” said Atzberger. “With this ordinance, the government has claimed the right to regulate that soapbox so heavily and so arbitrarily that it has had a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech.”