Police policy barring advocates from using county sidewalks outside marine mammal park violates First Amendment rights; Lawsuit filed on behalf of 3 animal rights advocates, including 1 arrested for standing on public sidewalk holding protest sign

June 2, 2015

MIAMI, FL – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida filed a lawsuit challenging a policy of the Miami-Dade Police Department that limits demonstrators’ access to over 40 feet of the public sidewalk outside the Miami Seaquarium. The complaint, filed today in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, states that the “red zone” policy violates the animal rights advocates’ rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

The Miami Seaquarium, a 60-year-old oceanarium and zoological park, is built on Miami-Dade County land on Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay along the Rickenbacker Causeway, and is accessible by county sidewalks. The park has drawn increasing attention in recent years from advocates protesting the treatment of “Lolita,” an orca held at the Seaquarium. Beginning in the summer of 2014, the Miami Dade Police Department (MDPD) began circulating maps designating the area of sidewalk in front of the Seaquarium a “red zone,” where advocates are not permitted to stand. 

Because of the “red zone,” advocates must stand far back from the entrance and exit on sections of the sidewalk designated as a “green zone,” where they are not as visible or audible to Seaquarium visitors, most of whom enter the Seaquarium by car.  From the “green zone,” advocates are unable to talk to Seaquarium visitors or distribute leaflets to visitors, significantly reducing their ability to share their message.

“This is about as obvious a violation of free expression as there can be,” stated ACLU of Florida Staff Attorney Shalini Goel Agarwal. “MDPD’s red zone prevents advocates from engaging in normal conversation with Seaquarium visitors about animal rights and eliminates their ability to hand leaflets to the visitors—both historically protected forms of speech—on a long stretch of the public sidewalk—a historically protected place for the free exchange of ideas. The role of police isn’t to minimize the impact of unpopular opinions, but to keep people safe and to ensure that their rights are being protected. The ‘red zone’ policy at the Miami Seaquarium clearly violates the rights of those advocating for the animals.”

The complaint was filed on behalf of three South Floridians who have been told by police to vacate the “red zone” —Steven Bagenski, Gilda Cummings, and Jeff Geragi.  All three have been ordered by police to move out of the “red zone” at one or more demonstrations.  Cummings and Geragi have been prohibited from giving leaflets to visitors, whether in the “red zone” or in the “green zone”.  On August 31, 2014, Bagenski was arrested and detained for 13 hours for standing on the sidewalk in the “red zone” a few feet away from the entrance driveway while holding a protest sign.

“I was shocked by the whole situation and really taken aback by the arrest,” stated Bagenski, a recently-retired law enforcement officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I really feel that I have a right to protest on a public sidewalk, and the police shouldn’t be trampling the rights of the public. As a former law enforcement officer, I am hoping to send a message to the police officers that they are there to protect the public and protect their rights, and I don’t feel that that happened in this instance.”

The lawsuit names Miami-Dade County, MDPD Director J.D. Patterson, and MDPD Officer John Alexander Jr. – the officer who arrested Mr. Bagenski -- as defendants, and states that the creation and enforcement of the “red zone” policy has violated demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.

Photos and bios of the plaintiffs are available here: https://aclufl.org/work/in-the-courts/free-speech/bagenski-et-al-v-miami-dade-county-florida/

An HD video statement by plaintiff Steven Bagenski is available upon request.

A copy of the complaint filed today is available here: https://aclufl.org/resources/bagenski-et-al-v-miami-dade-county-florida-et-al-complaint/

A copy of the motion for preliminary injunction filed today is available here: https://aclufl.org/resources/bagenski-et-al-v-miami-dade-county-florida-et-all-motion-for-preliminary-injunction/

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