The Alaska Civil Liberties Union (AkCLU) filed a lawsuit today in Anchorage Superior Court alleging that Mayor George Wuerch’s removal of a PrideFest exhibit from the Loussac Library display area constitutes a blatant violation of the right to free speech and the rights of the public to receive information, guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Further, the AkCLU alleged that the Municipality (through the Loussac Library) is in breach of contract for removing the exhibit after coming to verbal and written agreements with the organizers of the exhibit that the Pride exhibit would be up from June 1-30 and then allowing the exhibit to be removed only hours after it was posted. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four organizations that sponsored the exhibit entitled "Anchorage Pride: Celebrating Diversity Under the Midnight Sun" and more than a dozen individuals and other organizations asserting the rights of the public to view the display and to use this public forum in the future.
Last Monday night (June 4th), the sponsors put up the Pride exhibit in the third floor display area of the library exactly as the library had granted them permission to do. The sponsors had spent several days working on the exhibit and had met on several occasions with library staff to be sure that the exhibit complied with library policy and was approved. They finished hanging the display shortly before the library closed on Monday night, but before the library opened on Tuesday morning, Mayor George Wuerch ordered it removed. At the time, the Mayor did not give any reason for his order except to say that he did not think the public library was an "appropriate" location for this message.
Several organizers of the exhibit met with the Mayor on Wednesday morning, and at this meeting, the Mayor repeatedly insisted that the message contained in the exhibit is not an appropriate message to be displayed in the library, and he expressed concerns that the use of t-shirts over the elevators to symbolize coming out of closets was "too interactive." When pressed by the group to explain exactly what portion of the exhibit was a violation of policy or what they would need to change in order for the Mayor to allow the display to be put back up, the Mayor refused to give specifics, insisting that he couldn’t put his finger on it but the whole display bothered him. However, since the Mayor had not actually seen the display before he ordered it removed, he assured the organizers at that meeting that within 24 hours he would go look at the display and make a "final decision."
The next day (Thursday), the Mayor held a press conference at 5:00 p.m. on the steps of the Loussac Library and announced that he would not allow the display to be put back up. This time, the Mayor said his reasons for censoring the display were that the display was "promotional" and "church-sponsored." The Mayor concluded by announcing that he was ordering all public displays and exhibits removed from the library and that he was directing his staff to recommend ways of "revising" the Municipality’s policies regarding public displays. The Board of Directors of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union held an emergency meeting just hours after the Mayor’s proclamation Thursday evening, and in a unanimous vote, the Board authorized filing a lawsuit if necessary.
Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the AkCLU, phoned the Mayor’s office the next morning (Friday) and spoke with Municipal Attorney Bill Greene when she was unable to reach the Mayor directly. Rudinger explained that once the government designated public space in the library as an area for free speech activity, that area became a type of "public forum." The Loussac Library, she says, was such a public forum because it had been established by the government as an area where members of the public put up messages and express ideas. Once a public forum is designated, Rudinger told Greene, the government may not censor an exhibit solely because of the content of the speaker’s message. "The law is very clear that in this type of public forum, the government may only regulate the time, place and manner of speech—not the content of the speaker’s message or the viewpoint being expressed," she explained.
"For example," she said, "the municipality may regulate the size of the display, the duration of time for which it may be posted, and it may require that speakers file forms and get approval (to prevent two displays from being promised the same wall or area)—as long as the same rules apply to all speakers alike and all groups are treated the same. The government may prohibit a display from posing a fire hazard or blocking a doorway, for example. However, the First Amendment prohibits the Mayor from deciding for the rest of us which ideas are okay to express and which are not." Greene called Rudinger back on Friday evening and informed her that the Municipality was standing by the Mayor’s decision. Greene offered no compromise and said that unless a court rules against the Mayor, the exhibit would stay off the walls.
AkCLU President June Pinnell-Stephens, a longtime librarian in Fairbanks who is very active with the American Library Association and the Alaska Library Association, notes that the Mayor’s description of this exhibit as promotional does not accurately reflect that section of the library policy. "Librarians would understand the word ‘promotional’ as discussed in this policy to mean that the sponsors are connecting the display to a commercial activity," said Pinnell-Stephens. "The Mayor’s definition of ‘promotional’ stretches the policy so far that any idea or thought could be construed as promotional!"
The AkCLU lawsuit seeks immediate injunctive relief that would allow the plaintiffs to put their display back up as soon as possible, for the duration of the contract as well as reimbursement for court costs and attorney’s fees. The case is called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFLAG], et al. v. the Municipality of Anchorage. Cooperating attorney on the case for the AkCLU is Allison Mendel of Mendel and Associates in Anchorage.
Phone: (907) 276-2258
Attorney for Plaintiffs and Cooperating Attorney for AkCLU
Mendel & Associates
Phone: (907) 279-5001
Dan Carter (available after 5:00)
Phone: (907) 276-2258