The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly and association. Together, these rights make up an individual’s right to freedom of expression. Without the freedom of speech, people would be limited in their ability to express ideas on internet forums, social media platforms, and in public arenas. Further, a limit on the freedom of speech would limit the kinds of political and social debate that has become a part of the fabric of American society.
The ACLU of Georgia frequently represents individuals in court cases on this topic and defends against government action attempting to limit speech, whether at the municipal, county, state, or federal level.
Anderson v. Cobb County School District, 2002-2004
General Description: Resident-Only Public Comment
Summary of the Issues Involved: The plaintiffs filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to challenge a residents-only policy for speaking at school board meetings. The court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no genuine dispute on the facts and the plaintiffs’ claims failed as a matter of law.
Atlanta Humane Society v. Harkins, circa 2002-2005
General Description: SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation)
Summary of the Issues Involved: Former Atlanta Humane Society (AHS) employee Barbara Harkins and Kathi Mills made statements critical of AHS during a television broadcast and on internet message boards. AHS filed a defamation action against Harkins and Mills, but questions were raised as to whether the suit could be sustained under Georgia’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute. Ultimately, the Georgia Court of Appeals determined that the statements Harkins and Mills made to the media were privileged and that the lawsuit should be dismissed, ending in a victory for the ACLU of Georgia.
Burk v. Augusta-Richmond County, 2003-2004
General Description: Protest Zone (Golf)
Summary of the Issues Involved: In anticipation of protests during a national golf tournament held in the county, Augusta-Richmond County enacted an ordinance requiring groups of five or more to obtain a permit in order to stage a public demonstration or protest. Burk, along with the National Council of Women’s Organizations and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, filed an action challenging the constitutionality of said ordinance, arguing that it amounted to a facial (a regulation that blantly or “on its face” violates a constitutional requirement) violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that the ordinance was in fact unconstitutional.
Childs v. DeKalb County, 2005-2011
General Description: Protest (Vegan)
Summary of the Issues Involved: The plaintiffs held a demonstration in front of a store to raise awareness of vegetarian and vegan diets. At the end of the demonstration, the plaintiffs noticed a plainclothes police officer in an unmarked vehicle photographing them. Concerned, they recorded his license plate number. Seeing this, the officer called for backup, proceeded to follow the protestors, stopped them, and demanded that they turn over the information. The plaintiffs refused, which led to them being arrested for disorderly conduct. They later filed this suit to challenge the arrest. A jury ultimately found in favor of the plaintiffs, but deemed their claims unworthy of more than a nominal award of damages.
Gay Guardian Newspaper v. Ohoopee Regional Library System, 2002-2003
General Description: Newspapers
Summary of the Issues Involved: After receiving complaints from patrons, the Library removed copies of the plaintiff’s newspaper, The Gay Guardian, from its free publications table. The Library also changed its policy, only allowing government and library-generated materials to be placed on the table. The plaintiff argued removal of his publication amounted to censorship and a violation of his right to free speech. The court disagreed, holding there was no violation of plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld this decision, resulting in a victory for the defendant.
Gwinnett County Internet Blocking
General Description: Internet Use
Summary of the Issues Involved: The ACLU of Georgia conducted an investigation on the alleged blocking of websites deemed to be obscene or related to hate speech on public computers at the Gwinnett County Public Library.
Johnson v. Boggs, 2005-2006
General Description: Criticism of DFCS (Department of Family and Children Services)
Summary of the Issues Involved: Plaintiffs, grandparents who were unhappy with their treatment by the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), created a website on which they made statements about DFCS employees. The employees petitioned a magistrate judge for an Order of Arrest, and the judge asked the plaintiffs to explain why one should not be issued for making false and malicious statements. An Order of Arrest was later issued. The ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, arguing the Order of Arrest violated the plaintiff's’ right to free speech. The case ended with a settlement agreement that allowed the plaintiffs to keep their website without threat of arrest.
J.U. v. Murray County School District, 2006
General Description: Students
Summary of the Issues Involved: Plaintiff was expelled from school for writing a poem school administrators deemed threatening. Other poems written by the student were not threatening. The ACLU of Georgia challenged the school’s policy as vague and argued suspension violated the student’s right to free speech. The case eventually settled with concessions made to the plaintiff.
Lyde v. Glynn County
General Description: Protest
Summary of the Issues Involved: Plaintiff applied for permits on behalf of various groups planning protest activities during and around the time of the G-8 Summit. Glynn County and the City of Brunswick, Georgia, passed ordinances making the process of applying for and receiving a permit to protest more burdensome. The plaintiff filed this action, claiming the ordinances violated his rights to free speech and free expression.
Maher v. Avondale Estates, 2000- 2008
General Description: Ban on Signs
Summary of the Issues Involved: The City of Avondale Estates passed an ordinance banning display of political signs, yard signs, and real estate signs in front of homes and businesses. Throughout the extended period of litigation, the City revised the ordinance in an attempt to remedy any constitutional violations. Ultimately, a court deemed the law unconstitutional. That decision was upheld on appeal.
Schingler v. Seminole County School District, 2001-2002
General Description: Dress Code (Confederate Flag)
Summary of the Issues Involved: Seminole County School District’s Superintendent ordered that any shirt bearing an image of the Confederate flag would be targeted for censorship, and students wearing such a shirt could be subject to disciplinary action. The plaintiffs, eight students who occasionally wore such shirts in the past, filed this action arguing the dress code policy violated their rights to free speech and expression. Eventually, the parties settled the case in favor of the plaintiffs and the court awarded the plaintiffs attorney’s fees.
Schmidt v. Board of Regents, 1999-2002
General Description: School Newspaper
Summary of the Issues Involved: The ACLU of Georgia filed suit on behalf of a college professor who claimed he was fired as a retaliatory measure after the student newspaper he advised published articles critical of the University’s administration. The parties ultimately settled the case. The case was also known as Schmidt v. Fort Valley State University and Schmit v. Prater.
School of the Americas Watch v. City of Columbus, 2002-2004
General Description: March/Protest Permit
Summary of the Issues Involved: As part of its ongoing organizational efforts, the School of the Americas Watch planned a protest on public grounds outside of Fort Benning. Prior to the protest, the City of Columbus created a policy requiring participants to submit to search by a metal detector. Individuals who had metal on their person would be subject to an additional search. The ACLU of Georgia filed suit on behalf of the School of the Americas Watch, arguing its right to peacefully assemble without being subject to a search had been violated. After arguments were heard in both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, a decision was rendered in the plaintiff’s favor: the search was a violation of the participants’ First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Sharif v. Atlanta, 1999-2001
General Description: Street Musicians
Summary of the Issues Involved: The City of Atlanta adopted an ordinance requiring street musicians and performers to have a vendor’s permit in order to engage in such activity. In order to obtain a vendor’s permit, performers were required to apply for a business license. Only a limited number of permits were available per year; individuals who did not receive a permit were prohibited from performing in public. The plaintiff argued that enforcement of the ordinance interfered with his constitutional right to free expression through music and right to earn a living. Ultimately, the court ordered the city to stop enforcement of and repeal the ordinance.
Smith v. Wal-Mart, 2006-2008
General Description: Trademarks
Summary of the Issues Involved: Plaintiff, a critic of Wal-Mart, created t-shirts and other items with the word “Walocaust” printed on them. Wal-Mart asked Plaintiff to cease production of these items, claiming a trademark violation. Eventually the cause was heard at the Georgia Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, where it was held that the items Plaintiff produced were parodies and protected from a lawsuit for trademark infringement.