- One advocate was arrested and handcuffed for two hours after peacefully demonstrating in a public park.
- The Law & Religion Clinic at the University of Texas and FIRE are suing to protect the constitutional right to speak freely in public parks.
HOUSTON, Sept. 21, 2023 — The City of Houston can’t pick and choose who can speak freely in its public parks.
Today, the Law & Religion Clinic at the University of Texas and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston, several Houston police officers, and Discovery Green Conservancy after police officers arrested an animal rights advocate for refusing to give up his First Amendment right to free speech in Discovery Green, a public park described as the “crown jewel of public spaces in downtown Houston.”
The management of Houston’s public Discovery Green Park was concerned that passers-by might be “offended” by the advocates’ message. The officers’ actions were a clear violation of the advocates’ First Amendment right to speak freely in a public park —a park where peaceful protests happen regularly.
“It’s highly hypocritical and discriminatory to allow certain groups to exercise free speech but not us,” said Daraius Dubash, the animal rights advocate who was arrested. “We’re seeking a ruling affirming that no one — whether the police or park management — can ban people from peaceful expression in a public park like Discovery Green.”
Dubash and his fellow advocate Dr. Faraz Harsini are both immigrants who are passionate about animal rights. Harsini escaped to the United States from Iran after protesting against the Iranian government and was granted a green card for his research on cancer and infectious diseases. Dubash, who is from India, is a former marketing manager who now devotes most of his time to animal rights advocacy.
“Daraius and Faraz each fled countries where they couldn’t speak like they do here,” said Law & Religion Clinic attorney John Greil. “They cherish their rights, and we’re proud to fight for them.”
Several times during summer 2022, Dubash and Harsini went to Discovery Green to host a series of educational events. They held a television screen playing excerpts from a documentary about the mistreatment of animals, and they only spoke to people who engaged with them.
However, almost every time they demonstrated, park management and security asked them to leave, claiming that passers-by could be “offended” by their message. And so they complied. But the last time, Daraius stood his ground, calmly explaining to park management and security, “You still have to abide by the First Amendment because [the park] is publicly owned.”
The park management’s response? “Right. But we also choose, [and] we don’t feel the content is appropriate.”
When two Houston police officers arrived, Daraius again calmly explained his First Amendment rights. Yet the officers still arrested Daraius and handcuffed him in a chair in the park security office for more than two hours until he was taken to the county jail and charged with criminal trespass. The district attorney dismissed the charge.
“No one should be handcuffed and detained for exercising his First Amendment rights,” said FIRE attorney JT Morris. “We’re suing because public parks belong to all Americans and their expressive rights, not the personal views of a few.”
The lawsuit seeks to vindicate Harsini and Dubash’s constitutional right to share their beliefs freely in a public space. It asks the court to prohibit the city and Discovery Green Conservancy from interfering with Harsini and Dubash’s peaceful advocacy at the park, and it seeks damages for First Amendment and Fourth Amendment violations.
“Nothing is more powerful than being honest and open with people, and we’re standing up for our First Amendment rights that give us that voice,” said Harsini.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Part of The Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center, the Law & Religion Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law advocates for clients who face challenges to their religious liberty and who are otherwise unlikely to find representation. Its clients include individuals and organizations across the nation and ideological spectrum. Religious liberty seeks to ensure that people of diverse religious beliefs and nonbeliefs can thrive alongside one another peacefully. In that spirit, students and faculty in the Law and Religion Clinic work to protect their clients from discrimination on the basis of their religious commitments, from unlawful burdens on religious exercise, and from unlawful coercion of religious exercise.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Daraius Dubash (Dah-RYE-us DU-bash)
Faraz Harsini (Far-AHZ Har-SEE-ni)
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