Editorial: First Amendment zones are foolish

Published 8:58 am Friday, December 7, 2012

Governments cannot set aside “First Amendment zones” or “free speech zones” just to prevent people from speaking their minds or practicing religion in public spaces.

Such was the case in Duluth, where a federal judge ruled the city and the organizers of a holiday event in a waterfront park sought to prevent two ministers from preaching at the event, called the Bentleyville Tour of Lights.

Indeed, governments can set time, place and manner (TPM) restrictions on First Amendment-related actions — but there must be a significant government interest. It is a narrowly drawn legal premise, not one with wide latitude that can be employed anytime, anywhere.

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A good example is how protesters at political conventions are set up near the convention but are cordoned off so they cannot block pedestrian and automobile traffic in, out and around the convention center. When TPM is reasonably applied, the host city allows protesters to be heard by convention-goers but doesn’t allow them to shut down the First Amendment right of assembly, which is what the convention is exercising.

In the Duluth case, the city said it had set up contract language with the organizers of the festival to say the event is a private affair held by private people and merely happening in a public park. The city argued it thus was up to the event organizers whether to allow the preachers into the event.

Judge Michael Davis ruled wisely. He wrote: “Courts have consistently held that a private event that takes place in a traditional public forum, and is free and open to the public, does not transform the nature of the forum.”

According to a story in the Duluth News-Tribune, the city wanted to balance free speech rights with the ability of people to enjoy the lights tour without being preached at.

Dear city of Duluth, preaching in public spaces is just part of the fabric of the country, just the same as musicians with an instrument case or politicians standing on a stump. There’s no fighting 234 years of protected constitutional law in this area. And two preachers is not going to amount a TPM restriction, no matter how you look at it. Most “First Amendment zones” are set up as a result of suggestions by lawyers who had very limited knowledge of First Amendment laws. Save your legal dollars and let the preachers preach. The people still will enjoy the tour of lights.