Six Activists Are Suing Dallas In Federal Court, Claiming They're Being Illegally Barred From Protesting George W. Bush Center Dedication

Six long-time progressive activists have filed suit against the city of Dallas, claiming they're being illegally barred from protesting the April 25 dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The group says they were threatened with arrest if they show up at the dedication; the suit was first filed in Dallas County District Court but has just been moved to federal court at the city's request. It was first reported by Courthouse News.

The six activists are Paul Heller, Leslie Harris, Deborah Beltran, Gary Stuard, Diane Baker and Mavis Belisle; Heller is also a committee chair with the Dallas County Democratic Party. In court filings, the six describe themselves as "part of a coalition of groups and individuals who seek peace, social and economic justice, civil and human rights, and a sustainable environment."

As such, they add, they're given to the occasional protest -- always peacefully, through "nonviolent direct action." Like the protest they've planned to take part in later this month, the four-day long People's Response to the George W. Bush Library & Policy Institute.

The reasons for the protest are pretty simple, the six write. They plan to voice their opposition to "U.S. policies and conduct concerning war, torture, human rights violations and the infringement of civil liberties." Moreover, they add, former President George W. Bush and President Obama are planning to attend, along with a bank of TV cameras. For that reason, they say:

This once-in-a-lifetime event affords Plaintiffs and other concerned citizens a unique opportunity to to publicize their views about the conduct of the U.S. Government generally and the Bush Administration in particular. Plaintiffs plan to carry signs expressing their views on these political issues during their protest activities.

They six say they plan to carry those signs on a piece of SMU property. They'll have to walk on public sidewalks abutting Central Expressway to get there. The city, they allege, isn't so hot on that plan. They say they conferred with both SMU and the Dallas Police Department about the protest. In response, DPD informed them that not only did they have to stay off SMU property, but they had to stay off the public sidewalks nearby as well.

How, exactly, can DPD tell a group of no doubt very threatening older hippie peace-activist-types to stay off a sidewalk? The plaintiffs allege that they were told that because the sidewalks near SMU "are within 75 feet of Central Expressway... therefore the protest would violate the Dallas City Code." The code says carrying signs "on, over or near" freeways is not allowed.

The plaintiffs were sternly warned by DPD that any attempt to protest would lead to "criminal sanctions," the suit says. And apparently they were serious. On January 21, the suit says, a group of activists staged a rally at the corner of Mockingbird and Central Expressway, "carrying signs with messages such as 'I love the Bill of Rights' and 'I love the First Amendment.'" They say they were 75 feet from the access road near Central Expressway, and that their signs were likely only visible to those drivers, not the general freeway audience.

DPD arrived to write everybody a citation and inform them they'd be arrested if they didn't lower their signs or leave the area. They say they complied. Due to a "subsequent clerical error," the suit says, they later learned that only two of them had actually been charged with a violation of the sign-carrying ordinance. The other four were cited for panhandling, although they, you know, hadn't been.

The plaintiffs say the city has told them that error will be corrected and they'll all be cited instead for renegade sign-carrying. "These varying citations underscore the vague nature of the ordinance and buttress Plaintiffs' claims that their rights to free speech are being unconstitutionally infringed by the City of Dallas," the six write. They claim, too, that they're in danger of being cited not just for sign-carrying, but for "unknown -- and perhaps unknowable -- other alleged crimes for exercising their constitutionally protected rights to engage in peaceful political speech in a traditional public forum, a city sidewalk."

The plaintiffs say that the existing criminal charges have inhibited their ability to engage in "other expressive conduct," like, say, a planned four-day-long protest of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which would also, according to DPD, violate the sign-carrying-near-a-freeway provision. And that, the six argue, is a violation of their rights to free speech under both the U.S. and Texas Constitutions.

The city filed a general denial against these charges yesterday, before successfully moving to have the case transferred to federal court. Here's a full copy of the suit for your perusal. A list of the other people and entities planning to protest George W. and his Center can be found here.

Heller v. City of Dallas

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan