ANNAPOLIS – Citing freedom of speech, a civil rights group on Tuesday threatened to sue a Maryland agency if it fails by Feb. 1 to lift a prohibition on solicitations for funds on Lawyers’ Mall, a popular site for political protest with the State House and a statue of Thurgood Marshall as backdrops.
The Department of General Services’ “unconstitutional” prohibition recently forced individuals to forgo a fundraiser for Tina Frost, a Crofton resident grievously wounded during the Oct. 1 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert, Toni Holness, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said during a news conference on the mall.
The mall is a “quintessential public forum,” Holness said, noting U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that such venues provide broad First Amendment protection for speech. She specifically cited the high court’s 1980 decision in Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment that solicitations for funds on public grounds are protected speech, regardless of whether the money is sought for a cause or oneself.
Holness’ comments followed a Jan. 12 letter the ACLU branch sent to DGS, stating that the agency has until Feb. 1 to strike the “facially unconstitutional” prohibition or face a lawsuit.
“We have every intention to take this to court” said Holness, the ACLU branch’s public-policy director.
“The DGS regulation singles out specific speech for prohibition – the soliciting of donations – expressly based on its content,” stated the letter to DGS Secretary Ellington E. Churchill Jr. and signed by Deborah A. Jeon, the ACLU of Maryland’s legal director. “The rule applies, by its terms and in practice, to all DGS properties, including public fora such as Lawyers’ Mall. This, the Constitution forbids.”
DGS defended the regulation in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
“Organizations can host demonstrations in Lawyers’ Mall but it has been a longtime regulation, effective since 1994, that prohibits state space to be used in political fundraising,” the statement read.
“This common sense and sensible regulation prevents political organizations from abusing state/public property,” the statement added. “The organization is more than able to host demonstrations but cannot raise money. The Department of General Services is bound by the laws and regulations of Maryland.”
Carl Snowden, of the Caucus of African American Leaders, said he and his group will engage in an act of civil disobedience if DGS does not lift the prohibition by Feb. 1. Specifically, the group will gather on the mall and seek donations for the 4-year-old “foot soldiers” memorial in Annapolis, a three-granite-panel tribute to the hundreds of Marylanders who joined Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 march on Washington, said Snowden, who joined Holness at the news conference.
“Free speech is free,” Snowden added.