Marijuana Legalization Group Sues Tippecanoe County

Jun 9, 2016

Tippecanoe County is facing a federal lawsuit over its policy on public use of the courthouse grounds and county office building.
Credit Flickr.com / https://www.flickr.com/photos/75905404@N00/

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed suit Thursday against Tippecanoe County on behalf of a group that advocates for the legalization of marijuana.

The lawsuit alleges the county violated the First Amendment rights of Higher Society of Indiana Inc. when the commissioners denied the group’s request to hold a June 17 rally on the courthouse grounds.  

Since 1999, the Tippecanoe County Board of Commissioners has said the county has what’s called a “closed forum” policy, meaning the courthouse and county office building in downtown Lafayette are not open to public displays or events.

But the ACLU and its client, Higher Society of Indiana, argue the policy is unconstitutional because the county does allow displays and events sponsored by a county department or government office, and scheduled through the commissioners’ office.

Higher Society claims the county can’t prohibit its event, and at the same time permit public gatherings such as the June 2, 2016 rally of Greater Lafayette Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and the May 28, 2016 Round the Fountain Art Fair.

ACLU Legal Director Ken Falk says, if it’s truly a closed forum, the property isn’t open for any public display. 

“Unbridled discretion in the decision-maker is unconstitutional,” Falk says. “You can’t have a situation where it’s up to government as to what speech is heard or not.”

The commissioners declined to comment on the lawsuit, but did provide WBAA with a copy of the closed forum “Policy On Displays And Events On Government Property” adopted Nov. 11, 1999.

It states:  “Only displays and events sponsored and prepared by a department or office of county government will be allowed in the windows of the Tippecanoe County Office Building or on the grounds of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse. Said Displays and events shall be scheduled through the Board of Commissioners of the county of Tippecanoe.”  

According to the complaint, the commissioners approved Higher Society's request to hold a May 11, 2016 rally at the courthouse.  But following the event, Higher Society claims the county attorney communicated the rally was approved by mistake, and said any event must have sponsorship by one of the three commissioners.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court Northern District of Indiana in Hammond does not seeks a permanent injunction to stop enforcement of the policy, and a ruling that allows the pro-marijuana group to hold an event on the courthouse grounds.

Higher Society of Indiana co-executive director David Phipps says the group believes the rule requiring commissioner sponsorship to assemble on the courthouse grounds is a violation of the United States Constitution.

“The only thing this rule accomplishes is the censorship of the American people,” Phipps says. “It prevents any group the county does not approve of from speaking out and practicing their right to assemble.”