ACLU raises issues with free speech protections in Richmond park deal

constitutionIn a letter sent to Richmond City Attorney Allen Jackson with copies to the Mayor and City Council members, the ACLU of Virginia expressed concern that the 30-year lease between the City and the Monroe Park Conservancy (MPC) does not contain explicit protections for free speech in the park. The letter explains that even while it is leased to a private party, Monroe Park remains a “traditional public forum” – government property where the U.S. Supreme Court has said that free speech rights are most protected.

“As public space becomes increasingly scarce, it is essential that we maintain public parks as forums for expression,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.

In the letter, the ACLU of Virginia writes that the lease leaves many questions unanswered about the public’s right to use the park for free speech purposes. These include whether individuals and small groups will be able to leaflet and collect petition signatures in the park without a permit, and whether MPC will be able to enter into extended subleases with entities that may exclude the public. The letter asks Jackson to provide answers to those questions.

The lease allows MPC to develop policies for the use of the park, but does not specify whether the policies must respect the free speech rights of the public. A separate agreement grants the City Council veto power over the use policies.

“The City Attorney and Council must review the use policies carefully to ensure that they comply with the First Amendment,” said Gastañaga. “Policies that fail to protect the public’s free speech rights could expose both the City and MPC to liability.”

“We will monitor the situation closely and will not hesitate to step in if we believe that First Amendment rights are violated,” concluded Gastañaga.

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