Mackinac Island Leafleting Ordinance Blatantly Unconstitutional, ACLU Tells Officials

May 31, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – In a letter today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged Mackinac Island officials to repeal an unconstitutional ordinance that makes it a crime to leaflet in all public places. The ordinance was enforced yesterday by local and state police against activists at the Mackinac Policy Conference who were distributing flyers on a public sidewalk protesting what they view are attacks on public education in the state.

“It is hard to imagine a more blatantly unconstitutional ordinance. You don’t sign away your rights when you board the ferry to Mackinac Island,” said Michael J. Steinberg ACLU of Michigan legal director. “Visitors and residents are entitled to the same free speech protections on the island that they enjoy in the rest of the country.”

Yesterday morning, Jessica Tramontana, communications director of Progress Michigan, and colleagues stood on the public sidewalk across the street from the Old Stone Church on Cadotte Avenue passing out flyers protesting the “Skunk Works” project. The flyer included a drawing of a skunk and stated that a “plan for school vouchers and cuts to education in Michigan . . .  stinks.”  They timed their advocacy to coincide with the speech at the conference by Michelle Rhee, a nationally known proponent of school vouchers.

According to Tramontana, three Mackinac Island police officers and two Michigan State Police troopers eventually ordered them to stop distributing literature anywhere on the island. One of the state police officers informed the activists that distributing flyers in public was prohibited on public land and alluded to a 1978 ordinance, which states:

“No person shall physically distribute leaflets, handbills or other similar printed material by hand to passersby in any of the public streets, alleyways, municipal docks or parks of the city.”

"It's disturbing for anyone to be silenced while peacefully passing out literature on a public sidewalk," said Tramontana. "Our goal was to break the silence about a secretive workgroup that was investigating drastically changing education in Michigan with a voucher system without public input. It's ironic in our attempt to educate the public, we were prohibited from handing out flyers.”

In its letter, the ACLU of Michigan reminded officials that more than 70 years the U.S. Supreme Court ago ruled that the protection of speech is strongest in traditional public forums such as public sidewalks and individuals have a fundamental right to engage in core political speech like leafleting on public sidewalks.  

This is not the first time the ACLU of Michigan has addressed an issue where Mackinac Island officials appeared to believe that civil rights laws did not apply on the island.  In 2002, the ACLU represented an Island resident named Donald Bertrand who suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. His doctor had advised him to buy a three-wheeled, electric-assist bicycle because he was no longer able to ride a two-wheeled bicycle without falling over. However, Island officials refused to accommodate his disability and forbade him to use the bicycle because motorized vehicles are not allowed on the Island. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Bertrand and held that Mackinac Island, like other cities in the state, must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Act.

Read the letter here.

See footage of police speaking to activists here.

View the flyer here.

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