Ohio Town Won't Allow Tea Party to Celebrate U.S. Constitution in Town Square

September 15, 2010 - 4:05 AM

(CNSNews.com) – Local officials in Ohio’s Andover Township have denied the use of their public square for a celebration of Constitution Day because of the “political affiliation” of its organizers.

Several residents of the small central Ohio town formed The Andover Tea Party in May 2010, and in that same month, they asked to use the square for a rally to commemorate Constitution Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.

But on July 19, a trustee informed one of the tea party organizers, Margaret Slingluff, that they would not be allowed to hold the event, which would have included singers performing patriotic songs and public policy-related speakers, in the square. In an official letter dated Aug. 25, the trustee said the reason was “due to your group’s political affiliation.”

A nonpartisan law center in the state, the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, has now filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Tea Party group, claiming their First Amendment rights are being violated.

“The first thing that you note is the extreme irony of the unconstitutional prohibition of the commemoration of the Constitution,” Executive Director Maurice Thompson, the lawyer of record on the case, told CNSNews.com of the incident.

“[A]nd the second thing that’s notable is either the extreme arrogance or ignorance of many local government officials. There’s so much focus on federal government, yet some of the worst actors are at the ground level,” Thompson said.

“The government’s action in this case, ironically, demonstrates the need for greater public understanding of Constitutional rights,” Thompson added in a written statement.  “One way to do that is through commemoration of Constitution Day.”

According to their suit filed in U.S. District Court in northern Ohio, the group is seeking a temporary restraining order against the action of the Andover Township trustees.

In the complaint, Thompson writes, “It cannot be contested or doubted that the speech in which Plaintiffs seek to engage—honoring and discussing the fundamental law of this nation, i.e., the Constitution—is at the core of the speech protected by the First Amendment. And no venue could further reinforce such message as doing so in the center and heart of the community.

“In this case, the communicative nature of Plaintiffs’ proposed activities, as well as the selection of the venue for such speech, is indisputably protected by the First Amendment.”

Elaborating to CNSNews.com, Thompson explained that the trustees were citing a local resolution, Andover Township Resolution 06-104, that simply “prohibit[ed] any for-profit advertising or political signs on the Andover Square” and stated that “permission to use the square is made by the

Based on that, Thompson said the problem was not so much that the group was conservative, but that the trustees believed celebrating the signing of the Constitution was a political event.

“It wasn’t necessarily that this group was disqualified because they’re a Tea Party group that may be considered of a particular political persuasion, but it really was more that the celebration of Constitution Day was considered by the trustees to be less like Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day or 4th of July and more like a political event for whatever reason,” he told CNSNews.com.

“The Constitution Day is a commemoration of the day the Constitution was implemented, and the 4th of July is simply the day the Declaration of Independence was authored—similarly it’s a legal document. So we consider it analogous and not really worthy of a legitimate sanction,” Thompson added.

Of course, the Constitution has a political philosophy and overtones, but it’s kind of a given that you subscribe to that.”

The judge on the case, Judge Donald Nugent, is expected to make a decision in time for the holiday on Sept. 17.

“We expect to get a restraining order before the 17th so that these citizens can have their commemoration and engage in this speech. It’s pretty—it’s a pretty straightforward First Amendment question. You can’t ban speech upon its content.

We feel pretty good about our chances here,” he said, “and we had a quick call with the judge this morning, and they—the judge told the township, ‘Look, you’re not in a very strong position here, so it’ll be in your interest to try to settle this matter,’ and they gave us 24 hours to do that. So, we expect the township to capitulate perhaps by (Wednesday) morning and enter into an agreement with us.”

Just in the past year, the township has allowed events on the public square including a Memorial Day Parade, “Christmas on the Square,” an Easter Egg Hunt, a charitable school supplies drive, and an annual Fall festival.

The trustees did not immediately return calls from CNSNews.com seeking to find out why they believed a Constitution Day rally did not belong among those.

“You know, the First Amendment is something that everybody knows enough about to make this an easy issue,” Thompson said. “These people again are either ill-intentioned or thoughtless, and we really don’t know which. Either is bad government.”