CLEVELAND - The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent letters to officials in three cities calling on them to remove free speech restrictions during their Independence Day parade. Each of the cities prohibits candidates running for office from participating in the community parade and distributing campaign literature. The cities include two Cleveland-area suburbs: Bedford and Shaker Heights. In addition, the ACLU contacted Dublin, a Columbus suburb.

“Independence Day is supposed to be a celebration of freedom and democracy, yet these policies restrict our most basic First Amendment rights,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James L. Hardiman. “Free speech is the foundation of our political system, and political speech must be strongly protected. Candidates and the public rely on a free exchange of ideas so voters are informed when they cast their ballot.”

The cities’ policies treat some candidates differently. Incumbent candidates are permitted to march in the parades, while candidates who do not currently hold elected or appointed office are not permitted to participate.

“Incumbent candidates should not have an advantage over their competitors. The exposure they receive by marching in the parade stacks the deck against challengers,” added Hardiman. “Even if city officials had good intentions when they enacted the policy, it is clearly unfair.”

In May 2011, the ACLU sent a similar letter to officials in South Euclid, near Cleveland. The city banned campaigning during their Memorial Day parade, and prohibited non-incumbent candidates from participating. After the ACLU expressed its concerns, the city reversed its policy and dropped all free speech restrictions.

The ACLU previously filed a lawsuit in 2003 against the City of Parma Heights after it attempted to restrict political candidates from participating in the Memorial Day parade. In 2004, a federal judge ruled in favor of the ACLU and found the city’s policy unconstitutional.

“Vigorous civic engagement should be something city officials take pride in and foster, rather than seeking to stifle it. Parades are important community events that should be open to the full range of political speech. Hopefully, these cities will honor the Constitution on Independence Day and allow all free speech at the parades,” Hardiman concluded.