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Frederick settles First Amendment lawsuit over animal rights protests

The city of Frederick and an animal rights activist have settled a First Amendment lawsuit that alleged police officers violated the man’s free speech rights by restricting how he could protest horse-drawn carriage rides in 2019.

Under the settlement, the city agreed to pay $45,000 and to require police officers to read a policy statement outlining protesters’ rights.

The activist who brought the lawsuit, Jason Saltz, claimed in the complaint that the limitations placed on his ability to protest were unconstitutional because they were based on his viewpoint.

“Too often, activists advocating for animal rights encounter unlawful restrictions based on the content or viewpoint of their speech,” Saltz said in an email. “I am hopeful the terms of this settlement will help protect everyone’s First Amendment rights.”

A spokesperson for the city of Frederick did not return an email requesting comment.

The lawsuit stemmed from Saltz and other activists’ wish to protest horse-drawn carriage rides, which a third party offered in Frederick each November and December. In the past, the protesters had chanted slogans about animal abuse and distributed leaflets to people standing in line for a carriage ride, according to court records.

In 2019, however, police developed a new plan to handle the protesters that included setting up a “First Amendment area” that was largely out of view of potential riders, according to the complaint.

Protesters were allowed to stand outside the designated area and hold signs, but were prohibited from chanting when they were not in the First Amendment area. Police also told activists they could not hand out leaflets or approach people waiting in line for carriage rides, but had to wait until the riders were leaving to hand out materials, according to court records.

The protesters were told that chanting outside the First Amendment area would be deemed disorderly and a disturbance of the peace, though there had been no noise complaints and other people were playing loud music, according to the records.

The settlement ending the lawsuit was finalized in late December, several months after U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander granted in part and denied in part a motion for dismissal from the city.

In a memorandum opinion issued in May, Hollander found that the city’s restrictions on the protesters’ speech should be subject to strict scrutiny because they appeared to be viewpoint-based. The police, Hollander wrote, seemed at least partially motivated by their concerns that carriage riders would respond negatively to the protesters because of their viewpoint.

Hollander found that the city did not show it had used the least restrictive means to limit speech.

She also upheld a civil rights claim against the city, ruling that Saltz had made a sufficient argument that the city of Frederick’s written policies had led to a violation of his rights.

Hollander’s opinion in the case was chosen for publication in the Federal Supplement.

The downtown carriage rides have been a source of debate and clashes between protesters and riders for several years. Operator Donnie Lambert said in 2019 that he would stop offering carriage rides in downtown Frederick because of the protests, according to the Frederick News-Post.

The lawsuit, which was filed in March 2020, is docketed at Saltz v. City of Frederick, Maryland, 1:20-cv-00831.