To elected officials across Illinois:
Freedom of speech and free expression are under attack across Illinois. Loud, organized, and often well-funded groups are targeting local units of government – local councils, schools boards and even park district boards – pressuring them to silence LGBTQ+ voices in public settings. These efforts sometimes even spur threats of violence. Attempts to use local government to control speech are an affront to our First Amendment and to the kind of vibrant, diverse public spaces in which democracy thrives.
Local officials have an essential role to play in guarding against this threat, and in defending free speech. In the public spaces where the First Amendment strongly protects the right to free speech, local governments often control access through ordinances, permits, and other mechanisms that regulate when and where protected speech may occur. The Constitution requires these regulations to be narrow, and for the government to administer them fairly and neutrally, without regard to the content of the speech or the viewpoint of the speaker.
Local government officials have sometimes strayed from these principles in understandable, but misguided, attempts to avoid controversy and quiet discord in their communities. In recent months, the ACLU of Illinois has investigated or taken action in several instances where local government threatened or revoked permissions for LGBTQ+-themed events in reaction to loud public opposition. For example:
- A local park district board threatened to cancel long-approved drag programming at the village’s inaugural Pride Fest after activist groups monopolized the public comment session of a public meeting with strident, hateful anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Only after the ACLU threatened to sue on behalf of the organizers did the board reverse course and allow the festival to go forward as planned.
- Rather than standing with the victim of violence by extremists, a local government threatened a bakery with sanctions if it did not cancel scheduled drag performances after the bakery’s owners were subjected to a vicious campaign of harassment that culminated in an act of vandalism law enforcement officials charged as a hate crime. The local officials demanded that the bakery cancel the events that ignited the controversy, in part out of an effort to control the financial cost of protecting the business. The local government ultimately allowed the drag events to proceed after the ACLU threatened to sue on behalf of the owner.
These events, disturbing in isolation, are more chilling when viewed as part of a nationwide trend of pitched and often violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, including in many parts of Illinois.
The current moment calls for strong, thoughtful leadership to protect our public discourse. Local officials cannot shrink from controversy, even out of a desire to maintain civility and keep the peace.
Local government must resist calls to cancel, control, or impose special conditions or costs on events in public forums based on the content of the event. It does not matter whether the restriction comes from an official’s own disagreement with the speech or from an attempt to accommodate the objections of others. Restricting speech based on content is censorship, and local officials must stand firm against it.
Of course, the First Amendment protects loud public protest, too, including at public meetings, which are a forum crucial to a functioning democracy. Just as local officials cannot bow to protesters’ demands to censor speech, they must respect and allow the protest itself, and the Illinois Open Meetings Act requires that everyone have an opportunity to speak before a public body regardless of viewpoint. Public bodies can promote fairness in public comment periods by designing clear, neutral rules, and applying those rules in a consistent fashion. The local body should clearly define the consequences of a violation, and take the least restrictive actions against a violating speaker (reminding the speaker of the rule or interrupting them until they regain personal control), only ejecting someone from a meeting as a last resort.
All voices deserve to be heard in our public square. Attempts to use leverage with local boards and government entities in order to block particular viewpoints or messages runs counter to basic American values. Local officials stand in the breach every day defending those values. The events of the last few months remind us that this duty is never more important than when it is most difficult to perform.
ACLU of Illinois