St. Louis: The ACLU of Missouri filed suit on Friday, January 8, 2021, against the City of St. Louis for First and Fourteenth Amendment violations under antiquated unconstitutional ordinances. The laws, St. Louis Code § § 22.16.070, 22.16.090, and 22.40.030 prohibit individuals from participating in political activity in city parks. They give the Parks Director unfettered discretion and are vague and arbitrary.
On November 2, 2020, Plaintiff Mallory Rusch entered Forest Park to meet with and distribute political literature to volunteers who planned to give it out the next day. Shortly after arriving, she was approached by a park ranger and told she could not engage in political activity in the park and she must immediately leave.
Rusch asked the Parks Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry for an explanation. Although she was aware of § 22.16.070 of the St. Louis Code of Ordinances, which provides that “[n]o person shall deliver any oration, address, speech, sermon or lecture therein without the written consent of the Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry,” as well as § 22.16.090 of the St. Louis Code of Ordinances, which prohibits “[a]ll disorderly or indecent conduct, the use of threatening, obscene or profane language, and all games, acts or demeanor calculated or tending to mar or disturb the feelings or enjoyment of the visitors attending public parks, places or squares,” Rusch did not think herself to be violating either ordinance and was not aware of any other applicable law. Violations of those ordinances can lead to incarceration.
The first official Rusch encountered reiterated that political activity was not allowed in parks and no workaround was available. Another park ranger arrived and decided that Rusch could remain to distribute literature to volunteers so long as she did not have a sign. This direction shows the arbitrary nature of these ordinances.
Rusch was also made aware of § 22.40.030. This ordinance requires that individuals, groups, or organizations must apply for a permit if they will have a meeting in a park with one hundred people or more, and a bond must be posted. It also has its own penalty provision that levies fines up to $500.
Rusch still does not know why she was required to cease meeting and distributing literature in the park and allowed to resume only with restrictions, including no sign identifying herself. The ordinances infringe upon Rusch’s rights to free speech and due process, as she has no way of predicting whether her activity violates these vague and overbroad ordinances. Rusch now faces two difficult options: either engaging in political expressive activity in the City’s parks and facing enforcement of the rules prohibiting it, or self-censoring by engaging in the expressive activity somewhere else, or not at all.
Tony Rothert, Legal Director ACLU of Missouri: “It’s time for these unconstitutional ordinances to be taken off the books. Parks are one of the original public forums and should be bastions of free speech and assembly for everyone”.