Alaska ACLU Challenges Anchorage Mayor's Removal of Gay Pride Exhibit from Library

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
June 13, 2001 12:00 am

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ANCHORAGE– The Alaska Civil Liberties Union today asked a local court to restore a gay pride exhibit in a local library, saying that the Mayor’s removal of the exhibit violates Alaskans’ free speech rights under state and federal law.

“”The First Amendment prohibits the Mayor from deciding for the rest of us which ideas are okay to express and which are not,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the AkCLU. “”The government may not censor an exhibit solely because of the content of the speaker’s message.””

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.

In legal papers, the AkCLU also said that the government is in breach of contract for removing the exhibit after coming to verbal and written agreements that it would be up from June 1-30. Instead, the exhibit was ordered removed just hours after it was posted.

At a meeting with several organizers of the exhibit on June 6, 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, he 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.”

On Thursday, June 7, the Mayor held a 5:00 p.m. press conference on the steps of the Loussac Library announcing that he would not allow the display to be restored. 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.

AkCLU President June Pinnell-Stephens, a longtime librarian in Fairbanks who is active in the American Library Association and the Alaska Library Association, said that the Mayor’s description of the gay pride exhibit as promotional does not accurately reflect 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.””

Prior to filing today’s lawsuit Rudinger, spoke with Municipal Attorney Bill Greene, explaining that once the government designates public space in the library as an area for free speech activity, that area becomes a type of “public forum.”

“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,” Rudinger said. “”The government may prohibit a display from posing a fire hazard or blocking a doorway, for example.””

The AkCLU lawsuit seeks a court order that would allow the plaintiffs to put their display back up as soon as possible, for the duration of the contract. The lawsuit also seeks 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.

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