Anti-abortion group 'silenced' outside Democratic debates in Detroit, lawsuit says

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

An anti-abortion group is suing Detroit officials over claims police officers violated members' rights by not allowing them to protest near the Democratic presidential candidate debates in July at the Fox Theatre.

According to the suit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit, the “speech restrictions” imposed on Created Equal, a national organization that uses a traveling photo exhibit, “prohibited plaintiffs from expressing their message to their intended audience” and sought to marginalize them.

People arrive at the Fox Theatre in Detroit for night two of the Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

“From the moment we arrived, Detroit Police harassed and mistreated us,” Mark Harrington, Created Equal's founder and president, said in a statement. “We were silenced by police several times over the course of the two days for attempting to express our free speech rights.”

Harrington’s group attended the downtown venue on both nights of the event, July 30 and 31, “to use their pro-life message to influence the candidates, and … those who attended the debates and support the pro-abortion positions and policies of the candidates,” according to the lawsuit.

The members arrived early on the first day and planned to stay close to the Fox, but officers told them they couldn’t remain in what was considered a restricted area, the filing stated.

In a largely empty area across Woodward Avenue from the Fox Theatre, a group of Biden supporters cheer for a television camera before the second round of the Democratic Presidential Debates in Detroit , Wednesday.

They eventually moved to a spot near the St. John’s Episcopal Church parking lot thought to be outside the restricted area, and where Harrington saw several media vehicles as well as a video billboard truck running political ads, where an officer said it was private property and the owners “don’t want you here,” the document said.

Video footage that Created Equal posted on YouTube showed Harrington criticizing officers, who told his group it had to relocate to another spot where other demonstrators gathered. However, the “free speech area” at Grand Circus Park off Woodward Avenue denied them access to the public sidewalk closest to the Fox, according to the lawsuit.

An officer handcuffed Harrington when he initially failed to comply with the order the leave the church property, according to the complaint and video footage.

Facing arrest, Harrington agreed he and his team would move as commanded. But they learned there were two “free speech areas," one in a “more advantageous” location that seemed “designated for speakers expressing a view that was in accord with the political views of the Democrat party and its candidates,” while the other held protesters sharing different views, the court filing said.

Police also stopped Created Equal from joining the latter section, saying they “don’t want any issues,” then later allowed the group to briefly march nearer the theater once the presidential candidates and debate attendees were inside, the suit said.

On the second day of the debates, the group protested in the supposedly more favorable free speech section, but officers told them to move after a member used a bullhorn, despite others doing the same without incident 24 hours earlier, according to the filing.

A protester yells in the aisle, disrupting the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates in Detroit, Wednesday.

The complaint alleges the actions violated the group’s constitutional rights. The suit asks a judge to award Created Equal damages and declare the city's restrictions unconstitutional. 

Such restrictions “had the intended effect of sanitizing and cleansing the areas immediately in front of and adjacent to the Fox Theatre of any messages that were critical of the Democrat presidential candidates and the positions and policies they supported,” said the group’s attorney, Robert Muise, co-founder and senior counsel of the American Freedom Law Center.

“In particular, these restrictions ensured that our clients’ message, specifically including their pro-life signs, would be hidden from the CNN camera shots, the viewers of the debates, the candidates, and those who attended the Fox Theatre for the debates. Our Constitution does not permit such treatment.”

In a statement Wednesday, Lawrence Garcia, Detroit's corporation counsel, said: “We are confident in the city's position in this case and look forward to defending it in court. Beyond that we will not be commenting on this litigation.”