The Free Expression Project

Free expression is foundational in a healthy democracy. The freedom to speak, write, learn, report, gather, celebrate, protest, worship, and identify as we choose without fear of arrest or government sanction or coercion — all of this is inscribed in the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.  

And right now, free expression is particularly vital. In a contentious political environment, leaders and institutions across the political spectrum try to stifle dissent and silence views with which they disagree. But free expression is what makes our society open, vibrant, and democratic. That is why we challenge those who seek to censor diverse viewpoints at public meetings, force the removal of books from school libraries, deny the exercise of free expression based on the identity of the speakers, and more.  

With recent poll results showing that a vast majority of statewide voters care just as much about free expression as we do, the ACLU of Massachusetts has assembled the Free Expression Project — to highlight pressing threats to free expression in the Commonwealth, to emphasize what we are doing to fight back, and to empower Massachusetts residents with resources about this fundamental right that is essential to our democracy.  


100 Years of Unwavering Advocacy 

The ACLU of Massachusetts, along with the national ACLU, was founded with a commitment to defending the right of free expression protected by the First Amendment and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. From its earliest days intervening on behalf of immigrants and labor organizers, or reproductive health advocates speaking on Boston Common, the ACLU was made for this task. 

Throughout our 100-year history, the ACLU has protected the right to free speech wherever it is threatened — from public streets, parks, and sidewalks to public meetings to our schools, where children learn the value of hearing different viewpoints and perspectives. The ACLU of Massachusetts defends the rights of students to express their views both inside and outside of school; the freedom of low-income people to ask their neighbors for assistance; the rights of all to peaceably assemble, perform (including in drag), and march in our communities; the right to display political views at one’s home; and the foundational right to criticize the performance of public officials.  

The ACLU’s free expression advocacy has led to tangible and far-reaching reforms in Massachusetts. As a result of our work, there is now a recognized First Amendment right to record police officers performing their duties in public, which is essential to ensuring more just policing practices.  

The Free Expression Project will allow us to showcase, celebrate, and build on this work like never before. 


The Work Today 

The Free Expression Project is currently focused on several leading threats in Massachusetts and beyond, namely: 

Book bans  
Students not only have a right to speak but also to learn. Attempts to censor educational materials — especially those about marginalized groups — threaten the very foundations of public education. The ACLU vigorously defends students’ rights to read books conveying a diverse range of viewpoints and experiences.  

Public comment restrictions 
Free expression means nothing if not the ability to criticize our leaders, but many elected officials have sought to shield themselves from criticism by censoring those who criticize the government during comments in public meetings, or by shutting down public comment altogether. The ACLU is at the forefront of statewide efforts to preserve public comment. 

Curtailment of public assembly and protest rights 
The right to assemble and protest peacefully is among the most important in a democratic society, and the ACLU has long been a champion in this field. We work to ensure that governments do not charge unreasonable costs for the right to protest, deny equal rights of expression for viewpoints or speakers with whom they may not agree, or otherwise unlawfully restrict the right to gather and express. 

Rules against political signs 
Throughout the Commonwealth, we have seen increasing attempts to silence and punish people for expressing themselves at their own homes through signs that show support for certain political candidates or causes. In recent years, the ACLU has successfully defended the right to display a wide variety of signs — from “Black Lives Matter” to “Biden is not my president” — at one’s home. 

Drag censorship 
Across the country and even here in Massachusetts, there are attempts to deny equal rights of free speech to those who express themselves through drag performance. This is part of a troubling trend — also reflected in calls for book bans — of attempts to curb LGBTQIA+ expression and erase queer people from public life. We will not allow these efforts to go unchallenged in Massachusetts.  

Campus speech 
To hone critical thinking skills, nurture new ideas, and learn to engage in a world full of people with diverse viewpoints, students must have the ability to participate in open discussion and nonviolent, nondisruptive protest. Such opportunities are vital for preparing students to participate in our pluralistic society. A college or university that censors or punishes students for their protected speech or associations risks undermining not only its own status as a center of free inquiry, but also the very foundation of our democracy.  

Resources

Know Your Rights

The ACLU supports freedom of expression by offering public education resources that empower individuals to know and defend their rights. Explore links to KYR resources.

150063_ACLUM_Free_Expression_Campaign_Web_Graphics_d2_2.png

Cases

The ACLU actively defends freedom of expression in the courts. Explore links to recent cases.

150063_ACLUM_Free_Expression_Campaign_Web_Graphics_d2_3.png

Rural Justice Network v. Town of North Brookfield: ONGOING In December 2023, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the North Brookfield Select Board and two of its members after they refused to grant permission for a 2024 Pride celebration on the Town Common because the event would include drag performance. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Rural Justice Network.  

Picard and Olson v. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Massachusetts State Police: ONGOING In May 2022, the ACLU of Massachusetts, together with the law firm Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP, filed a lawsuit on behalf of two LGBTQ rights protesters, challenging state regulations that unconstitutionally restrict the rights to free speech and expression on public lands. 

Jess v. Summer Hill Estates Condominium Trust: VICTORY! In January 2021, after ACLU of Massachusetts litigation, the Hampshire Superior Court ordered Summer Hill Estates Condominium to allow residents to post signs at their units, citing the free speech provision of the state constitution. 

Martin v. Rollins: VICTORY! In December 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s 2019 judgment, confirming that the First Amendment protects the right to secretly record police officers performing their duties in public spaces and upholding the district court’s ruling that the Massachusetts wiretap law unconstitutionally criminalizes this protected right. 

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless v. City of Fall River: VICTORY! In December 2020, after ACLU of Massachusetts litigation, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously struck down a state statute that criminalizes poverty by penalizing people asking for money from vehicles on public roads. 

Molloy et al v. City of Holyoke: VICTORY! In April 2019, the federal district court in Springfield declared a Holyoke ordinance prohibiting “temporary” lawn signs during winter months unconstitutional. The judgment prohibits the City from passing or enforcing any similar ordinance in the future. 

Spaulding v. Natick School Committee: VICTORY! In November 2018, the Superior Court ruled that the Natick School Committee’s policy governing the “Public Speak” portion of its meetings violated free speech rights. In January 2019, the parties settled the case with the Committee adopting a new policy that protects the right of the public to express a range of viewpoints without censorship.  

Massachusetts Peace Action v. City of Cambridge: VICTORY! In July 2018, after a court case was filed, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the City of Cambridge reached a settlement, ensuring that the City will not charge for public safety services for expressive events like rallies, vigils, protests, and marches in Cambridge parks. 

Thayer v. City of Worcester: VICTORY! In November 2015, a federal judge sided with the ACLU and struck down two anti-panhandling ordinances as unconstitutional. 

McLaughlin v. City of Lowell: VICTORY! In October 2015, after ACLU of Massachusetts litigation, a federal judge struck down an anti-panhandling ordinance as unconstitutional. 

Glik v. Cunniffe: VICTORY! In 2011, the First Circuit affirmed the right to record police officers performing their duties on the Boston Public Common. 

Lanphear v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts: VICTORY! In 2000, following ACLU of Massachusetts litigation, a Superior Court judge struck down Massachusetts’ tattoo ban as unconstitutional. 

Letters

The ACLU defends and advances freedom of expression in communities through advocacy. Read ACLU letters.

150063_ACLUM_Free_Expression_Campaign_Web_Graphics_d2_4.png

January 2024, to North Attleboro Public Schools: The ACLU of Massachusetts filed a public records request after a book titled “Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice” was removed from the North Attleboro school libraries. The letter also called on the school to restore the book to shelves for the sake of an inclusive and non-discriminatory educational environment; the book was restored hours later.

January 2024, to Pembroke School Committee: The ACLU of Massachusetts wrote to the Pembroke School Committee about a proposed policy to restrict constitutionally protected speech by school employees and students on matters of public concern. We urged the School Committee to categorically and immediately reject censorious policy to avoid the need for litigation and, most importantly, to avoid suppression of expression clearly protected by the U.S. and Massachusetts Constitutions and fundamental nondiscrimination and educational values.  

December 2023, to Berkshire County DA and Great Barrington police chief: The ACLU of Massachusetts and GLAD wrote to the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office and the chief of police in Great Barrington to express deep concern about their response to a complaint about a book in a classroom at the W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School. The complainant purportedly described the book as containing “pornography” and a plainclothes officer searched the classroom. 

October 2023, to Canton Select Board: The ACLU of Massachusetts wrote to the Select Board of Canton to express concerns about the Board suspending “public comment” periods at their meetings, based apparently on a desire to suppress speech it did not want to hear. Soon after, public comment periods were restored.  

May 2023, to Ludlow School Committee: The ACLU of Massachusetts successfully called on the Ludlow School Committee to reject a proposed school library policy that would have imposed sweeping and unjustifiable restrictions on learning materials. 

April 2023, to North Brookfield Select Board: After ACLU of Massachusetts intervention, the North Brookfield Select Board rescinded its vote to deny a permit for “Small Town Pride” because it included a drag performance. 

March 2023, to the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association: The ACLU of Massachusetts shared how cities and towns can conduct orderly and efficient government meetings while retaining public comment sessions. The letter followed a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that holds government officials cannot silence members of the public based on the substance of their input during such sessions. 

January 2023, to Massachusetts Associations of School Superintendents and School Committees: As efforts to ban books proliferate nationwide, the ACLU of Massachusetts and GLAD urged Massachusetts public school districts to protect students’ legal rights by rejecting censorship in school libraries. 

November 2022, to Taunton City Council: After ACLU intervention, the Taunton City Council removed unconstitutional policies for public comment at their meetings, including a requirement that any comments be “respectful and courteous.” 

May 2022, to Mashpee Select Board: The ACLU of Massachusetts raised concerns about retaliation and discrimination after a member of the Mashpee Select Board, in his official capacity, publicly denigrated a Mashpee resident for exercising well-established constitutional rights not to stand for or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. 

September 2021, to Massachusetts school officials: The ACLU of Massachusetts articulated its belief that any policy that imposes any sanction or burden on students who choose not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance clearly violates the U.S. and state constitutions. 

July 2021, to the Town of Lee: The ACLU of Massachusetts wrote to the Town of Lee about their removal of political signs from private property in violation of free speech rights. In response to the letter, signs were returned, and Lee’s policies were revised. 

April 2021, to Town of Plymouth: After ACLU intervention, Plymouth agreed to stop enforcing an ordinance restricting lawn signs on private property. 

April 2019, to Massachusetts municipalities: In light of cities and towns restricting residents’ ability to display political signs on private property, the ACLU of Massachusetts reminded municipalities that they may not impose unreasonable restrictions on political speech. 

March 2019, to the Town of Scituate: The ACLU of Massachusetts wrote to the Town of Scituate, urging local officials to revise a by-law that imposed unlawful restrictions on “political” signs. 

October 2017, to City of Boston: After journalists were excluded from a rally on Boston Common in August 2017, the ACLU of Massachusetts, along with other organizations, wrote to the City about how such restrictions violated free speech principles, which led to journalists being allowed access to a follow-up rally by the same organizers in November 2017. 

Media

The ACLU advances free expression through thought leadership and free press. Explore links to news stories. 

150063_ACLUM_Free_Expression_Campaign_Web_Graphics_d2_1.png

Lawmakers consider plan to restrict book banning, January 2024, Salem News

ACLU of Massachusetts ‘troubled’ by School Committe’s draft flag policy, January 2024, Marblehead Current

ACLU, GLAD tell Great Barrington Police and DA that school book search was 'unwarranted and unauthorized by law', December 2023, Berkshire Eagle

ACLU of Mass.: Elected officials should step back from path to censorship, December 2023, Boston Globe

ACLU sues North Brookfield after selectmen again decline to support drag show on Common, December 2023, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Outspoken activists are using an old playbook to challenge Massachusetts libraries, July 2023, GBH 

Op-ed: Expression through drag performance is protected under the state constitution, June 2023, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly 

ACLU calls for Ludlow school leaders to reject proposed library policy, May 2023, Boston Globe 

Small Town Pride event, including drag show, given go-ahead, April 2023, Associated Press 

Op-ed: Free speech and orderly meetings go hand-in-hand after SJC Southborough ruling, March 2023, MassLive 

Groups urge schools to resist book bans, January 2023, Eagle Tribune 

Free speech or out of order? As meetings grow wild, officials try to tame public comment., January 2023, Washington Post 

Nothing personal? Taunton Council drops requirement public input be polite., December 2022, Taunton Daily Gazette

Southborough couple say they were silenced by town officials. The ACLU agrees., November 2022, Worcester Telegram & Gazette 

ACLU: Fall River School Committee violated free speech in restricting public comments, July 2021, Fall River Herald News 

‘Biden is not my president’: Mass. Trump supporter wins free speech battle amid outrage over lawn sign, May 2021, WHDH 

A federal appeals court upheld the right to secretly record police officers working in public in Mass., January 2021, Boston.com 

SJC pans state panhandling law, December 2020, Commonwealth Magazine 

Scituate won't enforce sign bylaw following letter from ACLU, March 2019, Patriot Ledger 

Law of the lawn: ACLU wins injunction against sign ban in Holyoke, April 2019, Daily Hampshire Gazette 

ACLU warns against political sign restrictions, April 2019, Athol Daily News 

Is Panhandling A Form Of Free Speech? A Lawsuit Challenging Fall River's Ban Says Yes, April 2019, WBUR 

Cambridge settles with organizers of protest; new policy waives some fees for public safety, July 2018, Cambridge Day 

Op-ed: Why free speech must be defended, March 2018, Commonwealth Magazine 

150064_ACLUM_EOY_2023_Web_Banner_150dpi.png

2023 Action Report

Learn more about the work that the ACLU of Massachusetts has done this past year and how you can help meet the match to move the work forward!

VIEW REPORT