MIAMI, FL – A settlement has been reached that will protect the First Amendment rights of demonstrators outside the Miami Seaquarium, resolving a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Florida on behalf of a group of animal rights advocates who were subject to a policy that restricted their access to public sidewalks outside the marine mammal park.
The lawsuit, which was filed in June of this year, challenged the Miami-Dade Police Department’s “red zone” policy, which restricted protesters’ access to a stretch of over 40 feet of sidewalk outside the entrance to the Seaquarium. Since the summer of 2014, demonstrators were required by the police to stand far back from the entrance, where they are not as visible to Seaquarium visitors and unable to speak to them in a conversational tone of voice or to hand them leaflets. The settlement, signed by the parties and finalized late last week, ends the policy and requires police officers to respect the free speech rights of demonstrators throughout the length of the sidewalk outside the Seaquarium.
“We are pleased that the police and county officials have agreed to respect everyone’s First Amendment rights at the Seaquarium,” stated Shalini Goel Agarwal, ACLU of Florida staff attorney and lead counsel in the case. “Talking to other people and offering pamphlets on a public sidewalk is a textbook example of protected free speech, and the red zone policy was a textbook violation of that right. Police should not be blocking off the sidewalk to prevent people from advocating their views with their fellow citizens in a public place. This settlement assures that that won’t happen again outside the Seaquarium.”
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 animal rights advocates protesting the treatment of “Lolita,” an orca at the Seaquarium. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three animal rights advocates who had been subject to the red zone policy.
“I am very happy that we now have an agreement that makes clear what we knew all along,” stated Jeff Geragi, who, with his young son, has organized demonstrations outside the Seaquarium. “Everyone has a right to make our voices heard, and the police can’t restrict that right just because some might not be comfortable with what we have to say.”
One of the other plaintiffs, Steven Bagenski, had been arrested in August of 2014 for standing in the sidewalk in the “red zone” while holding a protest sign. The officer who arrested Bagenski is one of the named defendants in the lawsuit. In addition to terminating the red zone policy, the County paid Bagenski $1,330 to settle the case. “I feel like an injustice is finally being corrected,” stated Bagenski, a retired law enforcement officer himself with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “When I was arrested for exercising my First Amendment rights, I was shocked. I’m glad that we now have an agreement that makes clear it was wrong.”
A copy of the settlement is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/bagenski-et-al-v-miami-dade-county-settlement/
More information on the case is available here: https://aclufl.org/work/in-the-courts/free-speech/bagenski-et-al-v-miami-dade-county-florida/