Animal rights activists Daraius Dubash and Faraz Harsini were peacefully demonstrating in a Houston, Texas, public park when park employees demanded they leave. When Dubash insisted that the pair had a First Amendment right to protest, officials called the police, who arrested Dubash and charged him with criminal trespass.
While Dubash's charge was eventually dismissed, the pair have now filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the city, arguing that city police clearly violated their Constitutional rights.
"No one should be handcuffed and detained for exercising his First Amendment rights," said JT Morris, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a First Amendment nonprofit group. "We're suing because public parks belong to all Americans and their expressive rights, not the personal views of a few."
From April to July 2022, Dubash and Harsini demonstrated several times in Discovery Green, a Houston public park. According to their lawsuit, the pair—keeping in practice with Anonymous for the Voiceless, the animal-rights activist group the two pertained to—wore Guy Fawkes masks while playing clips from Dominion, a documentary showing the gruesome mistreatment of animals in factory farms.
On three separate occasions, park employees asked the pair to leave the park, claiming that the park was private property. (Discovery Green is public property, though it is managed by a private company.) According to the complaint, the pair complied, fearing retaliation.
On July 23, 2022, Dubash and Harsini were approached again. This time, they refused to leave, and Dubash calmly told park employees that he had a right to demonstrate peacefully. However, a park security guard told Dubash that protests were allowed on a "case by case" basis, adding that his "manager is going to come and come look at it."
According to the lawsuit, when the manager, Floyd Willis, arrived, Dubash informed him that, while the park was managed by a private conservancy, the park was still public property, meaning that the First Amendment applied.
"I, we're good with like, if you want to talk to people but, we're not comfortable with the TVs…the content on those," Willis told them.
When Dubash responded that "you still have to abide by the First Amendment because [the park] is publicly owned," Willis responded by saying, "Right. But we also choose, we don't feel the content is appropriate."
Several hours later, park employees returned, this time accompanied by two police officers.
Even after Dubash presented the officers with property records showing that Discovery Green was a public park, the officers insisted that because the park was privately managed, the park employees could still decide what speech was allowed on the grounds.
"If you are showing offensive material he [i.e., Discovery Green management] does not like, you can't be here," one officer told Dubash, adding, "Someone stabbing a goat or cow in the neck to kill them. That seems offensive."
Shortly thereafter, the lawsuit states that Willis told the pair, "We're officially asking you to leave. And as such, if you don't, then it will be a trespass."
"You're the police officer. I've been trained to listen to police officers," Dubash told the officers. "If you ask me to leave, I will leave; I do not want to be arrested. But if you're gonna say I'm fine to be here, I will be here." One of the officers responded it was up to park management to decide.
At that point, Willis announced that "private park security has determined that this is now a criminal trespass," leading the officers to arrest Dubash—even as Dubash told the officers that he would leave immediately rather than face arrest.
The suit states that, after being handcuffed, Dubash was taken to the park's offices, where he was detained for "two to three hours." Eventually, Dubash was taken to a nearby detention facility, where he was held for more than 16 hours before being released, according to the suit.
Police charged Dubash with criminal trespass, though the charge was dismissed less than a week later.
"There is a real and substantial threat of an arrest if they engage in their protected advocacy in Discovery Green based on Mr. Dubash's prior arrest and Discovery Green Conservancy's threat to again exclude them from the park if they display content that management disagrees with," the pair's lawsuit reads. "As a result, Dr. Harsini and Mr. Dubash have suffered and are continuing to suffer irreparable harm to their expressive rights."
Dubash and Harsini's protest is obviously protected by the First Amendment. Even if park patrons—or park staff—are uncomfortable with videos depicting conditions inside factory farms, that doesn't make their speech any less protected.
"Nothing is more powerful than being honest and open with people," said Harsini in a Thursday press release. "And we're standing up for our First Amendment rights that give us that voice."