ACLU of New Jersey Sues Trenton Officials for Denying Public Forum to Community Activist

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
August 12, 1999 12:00 am

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TRENTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today filed a lawsuit against city officials for refusing to allow a local community activist to use the City Hall Atrium for a press conference.

The controversy arose when the Trenton officials denied activist Juan Martinez use of the public space after learning that he planned to criticize the Mayor Douglas H. Palmer’s choice for a new police chief. The City also refused to provide any guidelines for its decision to grant or deny a request to use the facility.

“The City of Trenton violated Martinez’s First Amendment rights in at least two ways,” said Grayson Barber, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey. “First, it denied public access to a public forum based on the content of his speech.”

“Second,” he explained, “its ‘approval’ process for use of the Atrium — for which there are no clear guidelines — amounts to an impermissible licensing scheme that imposes an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.”

Martinez was barred from using the Atrium despite the fact that the mayor and other politicians, community leaders, and members of the public have used the space for a variety of expressive activities.

“This is not just about me,” said Martinez. “This is about everyone who wishes to exercise their constitutional rights.”

“Just because someone disagrees with the mayor on certain issues, that does not give the City the right to silence him,” he added.

The ACLU said that in design, purpose, function, and use, the City Hall Atrium and adjacent plaza are equivalent to a public park and thus are “traditional” public forums in which the government may not censor speech.

“The Atrium is, in essence, a public park with a glass roof over a portion of it,” said Frank Corrado, co-counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey. “Just as the government may not ban Mr. Martinez from setting up a soap box in the park, neither may it banish him from speaking in the Atrium.”

Lenora Lapidus, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey said the city’s action was a classic example of the government trying to freeze out the opinions of those who may be critical of official policy.

“The mayor cannot stay warm and dry inside the Atrium while banishing his critics to shiver outside in the elements,” Lapidus said.

The lawsuit, Martinez v. City of Trenton, was filed in United States District Court in Trenton against the City of Trenton, Mayor Palmer and Eric Tunstall, Director of Public Property for the City.

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