Florida Officials Agree to Protect Free Speech, Suspend Insurance Requirement for Public Displays During the Holidays

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
December 13, 2005 12:00 am

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Church Groups and Others in Polk County Are Free of Burdensome Fees Following ACLU Lawsuit

TAMPA, FL – In a victory for free speech, Polk County officials today agreed to temporarily eliminate a burdensome rule that had been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union requiring that individuals and groups purchase expensive insurance policies before being allowed to set up displays in front of the county administration building.

“Money will no longer be a determining factor in whether someone is able to exercise their constitutional right to free expression,” said Rebecca Steele, Director of the ACLU of Florida’s West Central Florida Office in Tampa. “Now church groups and smaller non-profits can express themselves without having to worry about whether they can afford to pay a government-imposed fee.”

The ACLU sued on December 9 after county officials rejected the ACLU’s application to create a Bill of Rights display, including a 12-foot Statute of Liberty, to commemorate the 214th Anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. The organization’s application was denied because it failed to take out the required $500,000 insurance policy. The ACLU said the insurance requirement placed an undue burden on people’s right to self-expression.

In a court order signed today by U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth H. Kovachevich, Polk County agreed to temporarily suspend the $500,000 insurance requirement in order to set up displays in the so-called “free speech zone.”

As part of the negotiations with the ACLU, the county also agreed to eliminate the requirement that applications be filed 21 days in advance of “the first date of the desired date,” and protecting Polk County officials from liability for damages or injury.

All of the requirements will be suspended for 30 days in order to give both parties the opportunity to come to a final agreement.

Polk County’s “usage policy” setting the $500,000 insurance requirement was passed in March after a group of churchgoers erected a Nativity scene on the lawn of the county administration building without permission.

The ACLU of Florida filed the lawsuit on behalf of members of its Greater Tampa Chapter, the Humanist Association of West Central Florida, and an individual who put up a display last year.

In addition to Steele, Randall Marshall, ACLU of Florida Legal Director, and Peter Helwig, an ACLU volunteer attorney, served as attorneys in this case.

Today’s order is online at: www.aclufl.org/issues/free_speech/Polkstipulatedorder121305.pdf

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