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Lawsuit: Allendale Township censored racial justice messages

Tony Miller with his daughter in the Garden of Honor, which contains a statue of a Confederate soldier.
University of Michigan Law School
Tony Miller with his daughter in the Garden of Honor, which contains a statue of a Confederate soldier.

Allendale Township violated a Black veteran’s civil rights when it rejected his efforts to put racial justice messages on public display, according to a new federal civil rights lawsuit.

The Ottawa County township has what it calls a “Garden of Honor.” It allows people to purchase bricks engraved with messages of their choice, and display them there. Messages range from commemorative, such as “Allendale Class of 2003,” to religious, such as, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

The Garden of Honor also has a monument that includes a Confederate soldier. Former Allendale resident and U.S. Navy veteran Tony Miller found that racist. So in protest, he submitted applications for engravings that included phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Indigenous Lives Matter,” followed by veteran names.

According to the lawsuit, the Allendale Township board then changed the rules—inscribed bricks honoring veterans could only include a name, plus basic details of their service. The township then rejected Miller’s applications, and those of other civil rights activists who had submitted similar applications.

Miller, who has since left Allendale Township in part due to these events, said he wanted to help foster racial tolerance and make Allendale a “more welcoming community for families like mine." He said he tried to reason with township officials over the matter, but to no avail.

“We tried talking to them. We tried a number of things with them,” Miller said. “They just did not want to budge off of what they were standing on. It was the hill they were willing to die on.”

Peter Harding, a student attorney representing Miller and the lawsuit’s three other plaintiffs through the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, said what township officials did was a clear example of censorship, and a violation of their First Amendment rights. “If freedom of speech means anything in this country, it means that the government can’t discriminate against messages that they don’t like,” Harding said.

Harding noted that Allendale Township generally deferred to what donors paying for the engravings wanted, and did not restrict content. But, “when our clients wanted to engrave bricks honoring, say, Breonna Taylor or Frederick Douglass or just the overall cause of Black Lives Matter, Allendale decided that they didn’t want racial justice messages to be publicized,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to rule that the township’s actions violated the First Amendment, and order township officials to place the bricks Miller and others requested in the Garden of Honor. Allendale Township officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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