DETROIT - The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Detroit today to prevent the police from arresting peaceful protestors for wearing masks during demonstrations.
The suit, filed on the one-year anniversary of the Detroit demonstrations against the Organization of the American States, asserts that the Michigan anti-mask law violates the right to free expression, due process and equal protection.
"Peaceful demonstrators shouldn't have to fear the possibility of being arrested and jailed merely for expressing themselves," said Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU. "The anti-mask law clearly threatens the right to free speech."
The lawsuit stems from the arrest of 20 people who protested last June against the environmental and labor policies of the OAS and against measures taken by the City of Detroit to squelch free speech during the OAS demonstrations. Thirteen protesters were charged under the Michigan anti-mask law for allegedly wearing Lone Ranger masks during the demonstrations.
"The City did everything it could to intimidate peaceful protestors during the OAS demonstrations," said Karen Miller, a graduate student of the University of Michigan and a plaintiff in the case. "The police used the antiquated anti-mask law as an excuse to jail us and prevent us from speaking out."
The criminal charges were eventually dismissed against the protesters after the prosecutor suggested that the charges be dropped "in the interests of justice." The case filed today seeks a declaration that the law is unconstitutional and damages for the protestors.
"The charges never should have been brought in the first place," said Kenneth Mogill, cooperating attorney for the ACLU. "The protesters were charged with a law that turns the First Amendment on its head by giving political speech less protection than entertainment."
The law, passed in 1931, makes it a 90-day misdemeanor for people to conceal part of their faces in public during an assembly, march or parade. The law makes exceptions for people wearing masks at minstrel shows or during Halloween and historical gatherings, but contains no exception for political speech.
The case, Miller v. City of Detroit, was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Robert H. Cleland.