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Two animal rights activists filed a free speech lawsuit against the city of Houston Thursday, alleging they were barred from protesting in downtown’s Discovery Green in violation of the First Amendment.

The suit filed in federal court takes aim at the city over the arrest of one of the activists last summer and what they cast as a pattern of censorship of their attempts to display videos of the conditions in factory farms.

The lawsuit could test the limits of free speech in Houston’s parks, several of which operate in the murky space between public and private. The park is owned by a local government corporation but managed by the Discovery Green Conservancy, which is a private nonprofit.

The activist whose arrest last year sparked the lawsuit said he is fighting for the right of everyone – no matter their cause – to speak out in Houston’s public spaces.

“At this point, the suit is not about me, it’s not about animal rights,” Daraius Dubash said. “If it’s a public park, even though it’s managed by a private organization, you don’t lose your constitutional rights.”

Dubash had been going to the park for months with fellow animal rights activists before his July 23, 2022 arrest.

Their goal was simple: To get the word out about conditions for animals inside large-scale farming and fishing operations. Dubash said he came to animal rights activism through his Hindu faith, while fellow protester Faraz Harsini, a biomedical scientist, is concerned about the link between factory farms and disease.

Inside the park, the lawsuit states, the activists would hold up screens displaying silent videos of conditions inside large-scale farms, including what they describe as disturbing but not graphic images. If bystanders approached them, they would engage in conversation.

Dubash and Harsini said they’ve engaged in similar protests across the country organized by the group Anonymous for the Voiceless. According to the pair’s lawsuit, they repeatedly were told by Discovery Green employees and park security they could not show the videos inside the park. When asked to leave the park, they did, the lawsuit says.

On the last occasion, however, Dubash came to the park armed with documents about Discovery Green’s ownership. The park’s rules, for instance, state that the park is “a dedicated public park owned by the Houston Downtown Park Corporation and operated under contract by the Conservancy.”

Dubash attempted to argue that this meant he should be allowed to exercise his free speech rights. Police officers saw it another way: After a discussion with park employees and police, Dubash was placed in cuffs and taken to jail. Prosecutors dismissed the criminal trespass charge days later.

In the lawsuit filed Thursday, Dubash and Harsini are trying to establish once and for all that Discovery Green should be treated like any other public park. If Discovery Green is public, the law is clear-cut, according to Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami who studies the First Amendment and has no involvement in the case.

“In some ways, it’s really straightforward. Assuming the park is government property, the government may not discriminate against viewpoints it does not like. The government cannot stop protesters on the grounds that their speech is offensive,” Corbin said.

Parks are considered such sacred spaces for free speech that they have their own, special designation in First Amendment law, she added.

Governments are allowed to issue “content-neutral” regulations about how speech is delivered, but the animal rights activists say that is not what happened in their case. In one interaction captured on video, Dubash told a Discovery Green employee that the park had to abide by the First Amendment, the lawsuit says.

“Right. But we also choose, we don’t feel the content is appropriate,” the staffer replied, according to the lawsuit.

In addition to the First Amendment, the lawsuit cites Dubash’s Hindu faith in alleging that park officials violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Dubash and Harzini are being represented by the Law & Religion Clinic at the University of Texas and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

In a statement, City Attorney Arturo Michel said Houston had not received a formal notification of the lawsuit.

“The city has not been served with the lawsuit. It has begun and will investigate the allegations and address them fully as the court will require,” Michel said. “The city has requirements prohibiting the alleged treatment and values an individual’s right to be free from discrimination on the basis of expression, religion, and free from illegal search and seizure.”

Discovery Green Conservancy declined comment, citing the pending suit.

According to the lawsuit, after Dubash’s arrest, the conservancy took the position that the activists could return to the park, but only if they would agree not to show the videos or wear the Guy Fawkes masks often donned by Anonymous for the Voiceless activists.

Dubash and Harsini say in their lawsuit there are no park rules prohibiting them from showing videos or wearing masks.

The lawsuit seeks financial damages and a declaration that the pair has a right to protest in the park.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...