Franklin County Establishes Public Forum Ordinance to Promote and Protect its Citizens’ Free Speech Rights

Thomas More Society helps draft ordinance to protect privately-sponsored displays

free speech(Franklin County, IN) – This week, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, with assistance from Thomas More Society attorneys, enacted a new public forum ordinance to protect the Free Speech rights of its citizens to participate in the “marketplace of ideas” via public displays and events on the Franklin County Courthouse lawn. The County’s ordinance formalizes its prior policy allowing displays, which had been challenged by the ACLU of Indiana and Freedom from Religion Foundation in a lawsuit they filed against the County just before Christmas, over whether a privately-sponsored nativity scene may be displayed on the Courthouse lawn.

“We’re glad to assist the Franklin County Board of Commissioners to formalize their past practice of allowing displays and events on the county courthouse grounds. This new ordinance provides maximum constitutional protections for the citizens of Franklin County to use their courthouse lawn,” said Peter Breen, Thomas More Society special counsel. “With the enactment of this ordinance, the allegations of the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Freedom from Religion Foundation are moot.”

In December 2014, the ACLU of Indiana and Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against Franklin County over a Nativity Scene on the Courthouse lawn, claiming that permitting such a display violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, Thomas More Society defended private displays like the Franklin County Nativity Scene as protected under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. As the Nativity Scene is only one of many privately-sponsored displays in the County’s designated public forum, with others including displays from a child abuse awareness group and a local garden club, the County has taken no action to “establish” or endorse any one religion or even religion in general.

The ordinance, adopted by the County’s Board of Commissioners this week, formalizes the county’s prior informal policy, namely:

– To allow displays, demonstrations, exhibits, rallies, and other expressive activities on courthouse grounds, without regard to the viewpoint of those activities;

– To provide all county citizens with equal access to the courthouse grounds; and

– To apply a uniform, neutral permit application process.

The ordinance specifies: “The courthouse lawn has historically been the ‘people’s lawn,’ used by the public with permission of the county for everything from festivals to family picnics, displays to demonstrations. The Franklin County Board of Commissioners adopts these policies and procedures for non-governmental use of the courthouse grounds to ensure and protect the interests and the constitutional rights of the Franklin County government, the courthouse, the citizens of Franklin County, and the public.”

“The Board is glad to put in place this new ordinance, which protects and promotes the Free Speech rights of Franklin County citizens on their courthouse lawn,” said Tom Wilson, President of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners. “We look forward to many more years of displays and events on the ‘people’s lawn.’”

Read Franklin County Courthouse Policies and Procedures (Courthouse Grounds Use) here.