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Frederick faces suit over alleged free speech violations at protests

A Virginia man filed suit against Frederick and its police chief Monday, alleging officers violated his free speech rights by restricting the abilities of animal rights advocates to protest horse-drawn carriage rides.

Jason Saltz wanted to protest the carriage rides — which are offered by the city and offered by a third party in November and December — and sought to distribute leaflets to potential riders, according to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

A “free speech zone” was set up in 2019, but it was out of view of potential riders and protesters could be seen only after people had finished a carriage ride, according to the complaint. When protesters were allowed to stand across the street, they were restricted to the far end of the sidewalk and were not allowed to chant, the complaint said, adding that leafletters were not permitted to approach riders to engage them in conversation.

The downtown carriage rides have been the subject of debate in recent years as protesters continued to call for the service to be abolished, according to The Frederick News-Post. Last year, operator Donnie Lambert said he would not bring his carriage rides to Frederick in part due to concerns about protesters heckling him and his customers.

Protesters were told they could not chant because they would disturb the peace — though no noise complaint was made by any citizen — while carriage operators were permitted to harass the protesters and loud music was played behind them to “annoy and disrupt” their efforts, according to the complaint.

Police repeatedly informed protesters that they could not speak to potential riders because of the protesters’ viewpoints, according to the complaint, which said the protesters were threatened with arrest if they did not comply. Saltz alleges that he refrained from chanting and leafletting because of the city’s policies.

Attorney Sean R. Day said the lawsuit was “an obvious case to file” because police told protesters they were restricting their speech based on their viewpoint.

“A lot of these interactions, Mr. Saltz recorded with a video camera, and I was just stunned to see these interactions with police,” said Day, a Greenbelt solo practitioner.

The lawsuit names the city, police chief and several officers who allegedly enforced the restrictions and seeks damages as well as a declaration that the city’s policies for the protesters are unconstitutional.

City Attorney Saundra Nickols declined to comment Tuesday.

The case is Jason Saltz v. City of Frederick, Maryland, 1:20-cv-00831.

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