Lawsuit asserts city’s “clean zones” unconstitutionally restrict the right to free speech
NEW ORLEANS – Asserting that New Orleans’ “clean zones” unconstitutionally restrict the right to free speech, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today filed a lawsuit challenging the 2018 arrest of environmental activist Luke Fontana. Fontana was arrested and jailed for setting up an informational table about his organization, Save Our Wetlands, during the French Quarter Festival in April, 2018. Fontana was injured by his arrest and spent 10 hours in jail, simply for providing information about his nonprofit in a public space.
“Luke Fontana’s arrest is a textbook example of why the city’s so-called ‘clean zones’ have become more like ‘speech suppression zones’ for many members of the public,” said Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU of Louisiana legal director. “The city’s poorly defined ordinance, combined with NOPD’s heavy-handed and arbitrary enforcement, have had a chilling effect on citizens’ constitutionally-protected right to free speech. Expressing an opinion about a political cause in a public space should never, under any circumstances, land someone in jail. We’re suing to restore justice and defend the First Amendment rights of every New Orleanian.”
While the charges against Fontana were ultimately dropped, he fears that he will be harassed and arrested if he attempts to exercise his First Amendment rights in one of the city’s “clean zones” in the future. New Orleans has again adopted a clean zone for this year's French Quarter Festival, which begins on Thursday. If New Orleans refuses to agree to allow Fontana to exercise his right to free speech at the festival this week, he intends to seek an emergency order from the court prohibiting the city from harassing or arresting him for engaging in constitutionally-protected speech.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, asks the Court to declare the city’s “clean zone” ordinance (No. 32,047) unconstitutional and block the New Orleans Police Department from enforcing it in a manner that restricts free speech under the First Amendment.