DETROIT -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today against a Wayne County Metro Park for stopping an environmental advocate from holding a protest sign at park event where the U.S. Secretary of the Interior was speaking. Park officials told the man, a retired engineer named David Brooks, that the only place he could display his sign was in a free speech zone about two miles from the event.

“This case illustrates the absurdity of so-called free speech zones,” said Michael J. Steinberg, Legal Director of the Michigan ACLU.  “The government can’t force critics to protest in the woods where nobody can hear them.”

On September 26, 2003, the Lake Erie Metropark held a “Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Celebration” that featured a talk by then Secretary of the Interior, Gayle Norton.  A number of public interest groups set up tents and displayed signs in support of the refuge.

Mr. Brooks also supported the wildlife refuge but opposed the environmental policies of the Bush Administration and Interior Secretary Norton.  During the talk he stood by himself behind the seating area and, without disrupting the talk or blocking anyone’s view, displayed a sign that read, “THERE IS NO REFUGE IF YOU CAN’T DRINK THE WATER OR BREATHE THE AIR.”

Park officials first told Brooks that he was violating the Michigan Riot Act and then told him that the only place he could protest was in a designated area near a park entrance approximately two miles from the outdoor event.

“I felt like I was in China or Iran,” said Brooks.  “As soon as I put up a sign protesting the policies of our government, I was whisked away out of sight.”      

Today’s lawsuit asserts that the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which runs Lake Erie Metropark, violated Mr. Brooks free speech rights.  The case also names as defendants the chief of police of the Authority, an Authority police officer and a Brownstown Township police officer.

Mr. Brooks is being represented by ACLU cooperating attorneys Diane Akers  and Thomas Bruetsch of the law firm Bodman LLP, as well as Steinberg and Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss.

The ACLU is concerned about how government agencies have been using free speech zones to stifle dissent across the country.