DETROIT – In an effort to protect the free speech rights of protesters, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of an animal rights activist who was arrested by Birmingham police while peacefully demonstrating on a public sidewalk outside of a fur retailer. The ACLU alleges that police officers misused the city’s loitering ordinance to violate the rights of the activist.

“As long as we’ve had sidewalks, we’ve had people who use them to exchange ideas and persuade their neighbors of their views,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “The rights to assemble, petition, protest and leaflet without police interference are vital to American democracy and nowhere are those rights more protected than on our public sidewalks.”

Beth Delaney, 38, a member of the Southeast Michigan Animal Rights Team (SMART), has been involved in animal rights advocacy for more than 20 years. Delaney has participated in many protests, demonstrations and other events to raise awareness and educate the public about animal rights and cruelty. On December 15, 2012, Beth and a few other SMART colleagues decided to protest on the public sidewalk outside of a Birmingham fur retailer.

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For about 45 minutes, the group handed out leaflets and talked to pedestrians about their views without incident. Beth stood on the public sidewalk holding a picture of two rabbits on a sign that said “Fur Kills; Don’t Buy It.” At around 2:40 p.m., an employee at the fur store called the police to report the protesters.

The employee did not claim that the SMART members were interfering with pedestrian traffic or blocking the store’s entrance. In response to the call, two Birmingham police officers used a surveillance camera to observe the protesters and saw that they were peacefully assembled, holding up signs and distributing literature. Watch the surveillance footage.

The officers then arrived on the scene and told Beth and the others that they had to leave, claiming that a Birmingham ordinance requires sidewalk protesters to “keep moving” or risk citation. In fact, there is no “keep moving” requirement under any Birmingham ordinance or state law. The police officers allowed one member of SMART to remain because he had kept moving through the duration of the protest.

When Beth questioned the officers and asserted her free speech rights, she was handcuffed and taken to the police station where she was charged with loitering, a misdemeanor offense that is punishable by up to 90 days in jail. After the ACLU intervened and represented Beth in her criminal case, the charges against her were dismissed.

“Birmingham police have always pressured us to keep moving because of this basic loitering ordinance, but I never thought I would be arrested and charged with a crime,” said Beth. “I think it’s important to speak out when our free speech is threatened because if we let it go, it could happen anytime and to anyone.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan asks a federal judge to rule the Birmingham Police Department’s practice of misusing its loitering ordinance to prosecute peaceful protesters is unconstitutional. In addition to alleging that police violated Beth’s First Amendment rights to protest and question a police officer without fear of retaliation, the ACLU contends police officers violated Beth’s Fourth Amendment rights by detaining her without reasonable suspicion and arresting her without probable cause that she had committed any crime.

In addition to Korobkin, Beth is represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Christine A. Hopkins, Jennifer L. Lord and Howard S. Weisel of Sterling Attorneys at Law, P.C. and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and Executive Director Kary Moss. When Beth was prosecuted for loitering in 48th District Court, she was represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Lisa Schmidt.

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