Federal official responds to ACLU concerns about free speech outside of Lincoln's Federal Building.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 26, 2012
Officials from the General Services Administration agreed that security overstepped their authority when telling this group of ralliers to move.
LINCOLN – Normally when the general public thinks of federal security officers needing to disperse a crowd, we think of unruly people shouting, interfering with the general public and giving cause to alarm for those passing by. To some officials at the Federal Building in Downtown Lincoln, there is an entirely different image of a dangerous crowd that requires their intervention: a group of middle-aged church goers handing out flyers and holding a banner with the word "love" in big, bold letters.
Unitarian Church members decided to rally outside of the Federal Building this past spring. After about 40 minutes, the 15 or so participants were approached by building security. The security officers informed them there were on federal property without a permit and needed to move to the edge of the street.
"Essentially, they told those at the rally that the sidewalk was not a sidewalk," said Amy Miller, Legal Director for ACLU Nebraska. "Officials have an obligation to protect the Federal Building and those in it, but they also have an obligation to protect the First Amendment."
There is a knee-high concrete barrier that runs along the outside of the sidewalk, leaving approximately a foot of space to stand between the barrier and the actual gutter. At the time of the incident, security referred to this strip as the sidewalk.
"According to security, the ideal place for protestors was right next to traffic and away from people," continued Miller. "It was akin to saying 'you have free speech, just stand in the corner and talk to the wall so people can't hear what you are saying. From the assigned place in the gutter, there was no way to hand out flyers to pedestrians."
Sidewalks are highly protected free speech zones, according to the US Supreme Court. "The law is clear," said Miller. "Anyone may stand on a public sidewalk with a sign or pamphlets without needing permission or a permit."
In June, ACLU Nebraska sent a letter to the General Services Administration asking them to evaluate its current practice related to free speech. Mary Kosmicki of the Nebraska Field Office for the GSA replied in July thanking the ACLU for bringing this situation to their attention and informing the ACLU that officials at the downtown location would no longer be interfering with free speech.
"I want to see tax-payer dollars spent preventing legitimate threats to security of those who work in Government," said Miller. "I'm thankful to Ms. Kosmicki and the rest of the GSA for taking this matter seriously. It is always our goal to see complaints resolved simply by speaking to a government agency about the concern."