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ACLU warns Defiance against chalk message ban

DEFIANCE, Ohio (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union is warning a northwest Ohio city against cracking down on sidewalk messages written in chalk ahead of the city's annual Halloween parade.

At issue is a law in the city of Defiance that prohibits people from painting or defacing streets or attaching handbills to telephone poles.

The law was used last year to stop members of a local Occupy group from writing political messages on sidewalks the night before the parade.

Prohibiting such messages is a content-based restriction of political speech, James Hardman, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, told the city in a letter Thursday.

"We are bewildered as how you concluded that writing on a sidewalk in water soluble chalk is prohibited by an ordinance that was enacted to prevent the city's sidewalks from becoming damaged or disfigured," Hardman wrote.

The city should abide by the First Amendment if Occupy Defiance or any other group or individual writes messages before this year's Halloween parade or any other time, Hardman said. Doing so will help the city avoid "expensive and time-consuming litigation" over the issue, he wrote.

Hardman rejected an argument by city law director David Williams that children were permitted to draw on sidewalks with chalk because the law covers only "names," ''words" or "advertisements."

Williams told the Toledo Blade ( ) the situation has been overblown and the ban has nothing to do with the messages' content.

Occupy Defiance apparently had received permission from the chief of police at a time when he was distracted with preparations for a visit by then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Williams said.

But a police officer stopped the activity last year after consulting with a supervisor, he said. A misunderstanding arose when a police report mentioned the political content of the writings was the reason it was halted.

Williams said citations were possible for anyone using the sidewalk for personal statements.

"You can say what you want in a public right of way, but you can't appropriate the pavement as your blackboard," Williams said.


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