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October 3, 2012

Lawsuit challenges Indianapolis monument's protest policy

INDIANAPOLIS — Eric Smith is a disabled war veteran who decided to protest the United States’ involvement with a global arms-trade treaty by standing on the steps of Indiana’s most famous war monument with protest signs in hand and his 10-year-old son at his side.

But because Smith didn’t have a permit to do so, he wasn’t there long before he was told to leave or risk being arrested.

That incident, which took place in July on the steps of the soaring Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis, is now at the center of a civil liberties lawsuit that challenges the permit policies of the Indiana War Memorials Commission.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit on Smith’s behalf against the commission, which oversees the state’s public war memorials including the much-visited memorial on Monument Circle.

The lawsuit alleges Smith’s First Amendment right to protest was violated with the threat of arrest. The ACLU said it’s challenging the commission’s policy “requiring a permit for even small numbers of people to engage in expressive activity on state property.”

“Hundreds of thousands of individuals visit Monument Circle every year,” said ACLU Executive Director Jane Henegar, in a press release. “Requiring every single person, much less a veteran who has fought to protect our liberties, to apply for a permit to carry a protest sign is an unnecessary burden on the First Amendment.”

Smith, who suffered injuries during the Iraq War, including the loss of vision in one eye, views it that way too. He said he wasn’t with a crowd of protesters, wasn’t being disruptive, or blocking any entrances or exits to the structure. He was armed with signs bearing messages that contained his opposition to a United Nations’ arms-trade treaty that he said wasn’t getting enough media attention.

He was also armed with a printout of a “protesters’ rights” brochure from the ACLU website, which he showed to two Indiana State Police officers who were called to the scene by an employee in the monument’s gift shop.

“I took my son with me to show him how to exercise his fundamental rights and in return, he saw how government can step on your rights,” Smith said. “The ultimate goal is to get the policy changed for everybody, not just me.”

Stewart Goodwin, executive director of the war memorials commission, and a retired brigadier general with the Air Force Reserves, said he’s been instructed not to comment on the lawsuit.

But Goodwin did say the commission had a permit policy for the use of all of its monuments, including the use of the exterior steps that lead up the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He said the policy was there to protect the properties from damage and abuse.

“In my seven years (at the commission), I’ve never denied a protest request, not once,” Goodwin said. “My job is not to deny protesters their rights.”

Goodwin also said he spent nearly four decades in the military to protect the constitutional rights that the lawsuit accuses the commission of violating. “I wore the uniform for 37 years to protect those rights,” Goodwin said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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