From Free Speech to Due Process, ACLU of MI Is Busy in Three Different Courts Today

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
December 11, 2002 12:00 am

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DETROIT — Three lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan will be heard today in three separate courts. Two of the cases involve free speech, while the third involves due process rights.

“It’s obviously a very busy time for the ACLU,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “I’m not sure whether the general public is aware that we fight for the rights of so many different kinds of people, on so many different fronts.”

One of the free speech cases involves a Frenchtown firefighter, who along with other firefighters’ union members expressed concern that staffing levels and incident command procedures had contributed to four fatalities at a recent fire. The response of the Township Board was to pass an ordinance prohibiting similar disclosures in the future.

Saying that the township ordinance prohibits firefighters from speaking to the news media about any “fire department matters,” including matters of public concern, and violates the firefighters’ First Amendment rights, the ACLU filed a case in Detroit on behalf of the firefighters’ union challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.

To date, members of the Frenchtown Fire Department have been unable to speak to the media about fire department matters of public concern for fear of discipline and criminal prosecution.

The case, International Association of Firefighters Local 3233, Robert Gerlach, Ronald Hoskins, and Andrew J. Van Slambrouck v. Frenchtown Charter Township, will be heard before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit.

In a separate free speech case, a federal district court will hear a lawsuit against South Lyon Community Schools for issuing a five-day suspension to two students who co-wrote a newspaper titled The First Amendment. The newspaper contained numerous short articles on a wide variety of topics, including an article criticizing adults for telling jokes about Arabs and Muslims, an article critical of teachers for keeping religion out of the school, an article critical of the football coach, and an article critical of the principal for threatening seniors with criminal charges for carrying out senior pranks.

Although the students never actually distributed the paper, they were charged with “interfering with the operation of a school building.” The students were also charged with violating a catchall provision of the Student Code of Conduct stating that corrective measures will be taken “should any student act in such a matter that is detrimental to himself.”

The lawsuit charges the school district with violating the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of the school regulations controlling the distribution of materials at school as both an “unlawful prior restraint” on free expression and content-based censorship.

The case, Woodcock v. South Lyon Community Schools, will be heard before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The third ACLU case in the courts today will be heard by the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. The case, Tesmer v. Granholm, will decide whether Michigan can deny an indigent person who has pleaded guilty to a crime the right to have an attorney assist with his or her appeal from the sentence that the judge imposes after the plea.

Since 1963, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the poor have the same right as the wealthy to the assistance of an attorney for a first appeal from any criminal conviction, and no state had attempted to take away that right until 1999, when the Michigan Legislature passed the statute. The statute has never taken effect because the federal district court in Bay City struck it down in 2000.

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