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Did a Michigan Town Ban Tea Party Signs in Public Parks?


The signs and banners said “No More Taxes,” “Give Me Liberty . . . Not Debt,” and “Born Free . . . Taxed to Death.”

The Common Sense Patriots of Branch County--a tea party group--has filed a lawsuit in federal court objecting to the city of Coldwater's ordinance prohibiting the posting of signs in a public park. (Images via the group's facebook account.)

That ordinance was passed by the City Council last November and  forbids “the display of banners or other signs of any type or description whatsoever in the Four Corners Parks in the City of Coldwater.”

But the timing of the ordinance calls into question whether it was directly aimed at the tea party signs. Before the ordinance was passed, the tea party group displayed signs and banners in the park that read “No More Taxes,” “Give Me Liberty . . . Not Debt,” and “Born Free . . . Taxed to Death.”

According to a local report from the Mackinac Center:

A federal lawsuit claims a Branch County tea party group was denied the right to display banners and signs at a tea party rally at a public park in Coldwater because it was “too political” and “too controversial.” The Coldwater City Council then passed a resolution banning all banners and signs in that park.

The Thomas More Law Center law firm filed its lawsuit last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. Attorney Robert Muise of the Thomas More Law Center alleged that Coldwater City Manager Jeff Budd objected because the Common Sense Patriots of Branch County were “too political” and “too controversial.”

Budd didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. Heather Peet was the only person of the nine-member City Council to respond to an email seeking comment. She referred questions to John Hutchinson, the city’s legal counsel. Hutchinson didn’t respond to a phone message left at his law office or an email.

In a Nov. 2 memo to the City Council, Budd stated the “administrative headaches” of increased requests to have banners in the park led the city to either “allow all banners or no banners.”

Barb Brady, a member of the Common Sense Patriots of Branch County and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, referred questions to the Thomas More Law Center.

According to the lawsuit, the Common Sense Patriots had held five rallies at the Four Corners Park. Muise said to regulate speech at a traditional public forum such as a city park, regulations must be precise. He said the ban of all signs and banners is too broad.

“Instead of using a scalpel, they used a sledgehammer,” Muise said. “They didn’t mind when they had people put up banners for some innocuous event, but when the tea party put up their sign, they said, ‘Wait a minute. This is too controversial.’ ”

“There is a problem when you ban everything in a traditional public forum."

According to another report, the city had allowed the tea partiers to gather in the park and post their signs until the city started receiving complaints. Then, the council changed its policy on such signs:

The Common Sense Patriots gather several times each year for “TEA parties,” which they would often hold at the Four Corners Park. These political assemblies and rallies would invariably involve the display of numerous political signs and banners with slogans such as “No More Taxes,” “Give Me Liberty . . . Not Debt,” and “Born Free . . . Taxed to Death.”

As it had with other groups in the past, the City allowed the Patriots to place a sign at the park entrance announcing their meetings. Last July that suddenly changed. Without giving any specific explanation other than the City had received some complaints, the City Manager informed the Patriots they could no longer put up their sign.

TMLC stepped in on behalf of the Patriots and sent a letter to the City Manager demanding that he reverse his position. Within a few hours of receiving the letter, he did, and the sign was posted. However, in his response, the City Manager indicated that “a formal policy on displays in the city parks will soon be forthcoming.”

The lawsuit alleges that the City’s new sign restriction burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to further the City’s interests; that it is not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest; and that it does not leave open ample channels of communication for the Patriots to meaningfully and effectively express their political message in direct violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Read the court complaint here.

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