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ACLU, state reach settlement over Lawyers’ Mall solicitation ban

Protesters gathered on Lawyers’ Mall in January of 2018 during the opening of the General Assembly session.(Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Protesters gathered on Lawyers’ Mall in January of 2018 during the opening of the General Assembly session.(Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Department of General Services will no longer ban financial solicitations on Lawyers’ Mall and will pay nearly $100,000 to compensate groups prohibited from engaging in what they called constitutionally protected speech, under a settlement announced Wednesday.

The ACLU of Maryland challenged the prohibition in a federal lawsuit filed in March after DGS declined the group’s request the ban be lifted on the mall, at the foot of the State House in Annapolis and the feet of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall’s statue.

“Plainly, it shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit for the state to recognize and protect the free-speech rights of its residents at a quintessential gathering place for speakers like Lawyers’ Mall, but the state chose here to force the matter into court,” said Deborah Jeon, ACLU of Maryland’s legal director, in a statement. “Today we celebrate the efforts of the Annapolis activists who stood up for the Constitution in the face of state opposition and secured protection for all Marylanders through this settlement.”

DGS said in statement Thursday that it has “amended the regulations to strengthen demonstration procedures while allowing Marylanders to utilize the space of Lawyers’ Mall to its fullest potential.”

The DGS regulation – found at Code of Maryland Regulations — prohibited solicitations except those made by national and local organizations for savings bonds, health, welfare and charity; labor unions seeking membership dues; and the U.S. armed forces and National Guard, all of which are required to get DGS’ prior approval.

DGS had called its prohibition a “common sense and sensible regulation (that) prevents political organizations from abusing state/public property” and which protects “the safety and welfare of the public.” Political organizations are “more than able to host demonstrations but cannot raise money,” DGS had stated.

But the ACLU of Maryland claimed in its lawsuit that “the regulation at issue here is a content-based restriction on speech: It restricts solicitation on certain public grounds unless that solicitation meets one of (the) enumerated exceptions, including solicitations for charity or by labor unions.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Maryland chapter said the $96,000 will compensate rights groups for the fundraising they were barred from conducting on Lawyers’ Mall, as well as their litigation fees and court costs in fighting the ban in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The ACLU alleged DGS’s “unconstitutional” prohibition forced individuals to forgo a fundraiser for Tina Frost, a Crofton resident grievously wounded during an Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert. In addition, the regulation led organizers of a “March for Racial Justice” in October 2017 to forgo an effort to raise money on the mall for another civil rights event to bring attention to the plight of minorities in Maryland, according to the lawsuit.

Eve Hurwitz, director of the rights group March on Maryland, said in a statement that it is “imperative that we stay vigilant when it comes to our First Amendment rights, especially in the current political climate.” She added that “hopefully, we do not have to take legal action like this again to protect our community’s right to free speech.”

The case was March on Maryland Inc. et al. v. Ellington E. Churchill Jr., secretary of the Department of General Services et al., No. 1:18-cv-00701-MJG.

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