ACLU files suit against Campus Martius Park operators

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit – — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the private group that runs downtown’s Campus Martius Park, along with its security team, charging it violated the free speech of two groups of marchers not allowed in park.

Campus Martius Park is city-owned, funded and designed by a group of business leaders and philanthropic foundations. It is privately managed on behalf of the city of Detroit.

“With the growing number of city assets being overseen through public-private partnerships, citizens cannot allow public spaces to be converted into Constitution-free zones,” said Brook Tucker, a staff attorney for ACLU of Michigan.

The organization that runs Campus Martius is the Detroit 300 Conservancy, a private nonprofit established with the support of city officials.

Under a long term agreement with the city, the conservancy secures private funding to operate it. The city provides utilities, public safety and special event services.

Conservancy officials said they received no notice of the ACLU’s plans and “as such has nothing to which we can respond,” according to a statement provided late Tuesday. It had no comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit was filed over two incidents in which members from different organizations were told to leave the park by security personnel from Guardsmark, the company employed to patrol Campus Martius.

In February 2014, four members of Moratorium Now! attempted to pass out fliers and circulate petitions opposing Detroit’s bankruptcy. They were approached by a Guardsmark officer who ordered them to leave the park or risk arrest, according to the lawsuit. A Detroit police sergeant arrived and backed up the security officer’s claim, according to the lawsuit.

In June 2013, about 15 to 20 members of Women in Black-Detroit were confronted by security as they tried to march single file through the park as part of a silent protest against violence. The guard forbade them from walking through the park.

The lawsuit filed in Detroit’s U.S. District Court names the conservancy group, its president, another conservancy employee, the Guardsmark security firm and two unnamed security officers, and a Detroit police sergeant.

The ACLU challenge is a strong case, said Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University law professor who teaches constitutional law. “Campus Martius is a public park,” Sedler said Wednesday. “People are allowed to protest in a public park. It doesn’t matter if it is managed by a private firm.”