In a case we reported on last year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction in a case involving protests outside of a Planned Parenthood location in a Memphis, Tennessee business. The case previously turned on the fact that the street in front of the clinic was a private street. The district court had determined that, because the street was private, it could not be a public forum in which anti-abortion protests could take place.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision, issued yesterday, turned on the fact that the private street in question was “physically indistinguishable” from adjacent public streets. The court reasoned that, because the private street was paved and had no signage indicating that it was privately-owned, a reasonable member of the public would likely consider the street public. Thus, the court classified the street as a traditional public forum. The court was also swayed by the fact that there appeared to be a dedication of the street on the subdivision plat for the business park in question, and that the public had impliedly accepted the street as a public street through public use of the street. The court went on to apply strict scrutiny (although it did not conduct any analysis as to whether the restrictions on the street’s use were content based), and reversed the district court’s order.
While courts do not typically find that private property constitutes a public forum, they may occasionally do so. Private property owners must therefore take care to avoid creating a public forum through posting of signs or other means to communicate the private nature of the property.