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The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Farmington, claiming the city's ordinance governing public protests violates the First Amendment right to free speech even as prosecutors moved to drop the charges that prompted the suit.
Filed Tuesday in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of animal rights activists Jeremy Beckham and Lexie Levitt who were criminally charged in August for protesting the alleged mistreatment of animals outside the Lagoon amusement park.
City officials had not been served with the lawsuit on Tuesday, but believe it might have been avoided if lines of communication had remained open, City Manager David Millheim said.
City leaders suspended the ordinance last week on the advice of Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, who told The Tribune that, as drafted, the ordinance is too constitutionally vague to hold up in court.
The ordnance has since been forwarded to the Utah Attorney General's Office for a review, Millheim said. "We certainly don't want any part of our ordinance to look, smell or otherwise seem to limit free speech, and if it does, we want that ordinance gone," Millheim said.
Rawlings said he plans to drop the criminal charges filed last month against Beckham, director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, and Levitt, an organizer with the group Direct Action Everywhere.
Both were charged in Davis County Justice Court with "failure to obtain permit to gather and/or demonstrate" a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail in connection with a protest on July 16 outside Lagoon's corporate offices and on July 18 outside the entrance to the amusement park.
Neither event was permitted and in an interview last month, the pair told The Tribune they initially sought a permit, but couldn't afford the $50 fee and found the city requirement that each event be permitted too onerous. Protests were planned through October.
Beckham has said the city refused to waive the fees, but Millheim says the city was willing to work with the groups, but that protesters failed to respond to emails, phone calls and even certified letters.
"We're frustrated because we were trying to help these people get permitted and they basically said, We don't have to follow any of these rules."
In court papers, ACLU attorneys contend Farmington's "Free Expression Activities" ordinance is unconstitutional and so overly broad that is serves to "chill the plaintiff's free expression rights as well as the rights of many persons not parties to this action."
The ordinance governs assemblies and processions on all city streets, parks or other government property, and applies regardless of size or number of participants and includes a permitting fee, court papers say.
"On it's face it applies even to an orderly gathering of just two person on a public sidewalk if those persons wish to make a public expression of any sort and it applies in a myriad of cases where imposition of the permit and fee requirements burdens free expression but serves not significant or legitimate government interest and does nothing to promote public health, safety or welfare," the lawsuit states.
ACLU attorneys are also seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction barring Farmington from enforcing its ordinance.
Beckham and Levitt were scheduled to appear in court in less that two weeks. Late Tuesday, their attorney, Stewart Gollan, said they were not aware the city had taken steps to review its ordinance, nor had they been advised that Rawlings planned to drop the charges.
Lagoon spokesman Adam Leishman has previously disputed that the animals are unhappy.
"The animals are very well cared for," Leishman has said. "We have regular visits by the U.S. [Department of Agriculture]. ... As ever, we're in excellent standing with the U.S. Government. The animals are in excellent conditions, and they're content."