Protests & Demonstrations

Large religious gatherings, such as Catholic masses, may result in virus transmission, but may be difficult for U.S. governments to prohibit. Source: Catholic Sun.

Since the rest of the world seems to be taking a break from regular activities amid the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ll take a break from our regularly-scheduled programming to offer our view of the pandemic through the lens of our favorite topic:  First Amendment rights.

China’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan is well-documented.  Mandatory quarantines, citywide shutdowns, prohibitions on gatherings, and other such actions were implemented swiftly.  We in the United States have not yet seen such a response, and there’s no telling whether such a response will be needed.  But because we enjoy more individual liberties than do Chinese citizens, what might be the legal consequences of some of these actions?  We offer some thoughts below for state and local regulators:
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A marine mammal swims at Six Flags in Vallejo, California. Source: San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Vallejo, California’s requirement that a person obtain a permit before using a sound amplification is likely unconstitutional.  The court’s decision reverses the district court’s order denying the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, and allows the case to proceed to additional stages of litigation.

Joseph Cuviello is an animal rights activist in Vallejo who wished to protest alleged animal mistreatment at Six Flags Discovery Park, an amusement park.  Cuviello has been active in protesting Six Flags since 2006.  In 2014, Cuviello decided to begin protesting on a public sidewalk outside of the park, using a bullhorn.  Vallejo, however, requires a permit for the use of sound amplification devices, and the city imposes restrictions on the use of such devices.  Cuviello filed suit against the city, challenging the permit requirement as an unconstitutional prior restraint, and the ordinance as impermissibly vague and content based.  Cuviello eventually abandoned the latter arguments, and the court’s decision focused entirely on the prior restraint question.
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In a case that we reported on previously, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has entered a ruling in favor of a group of animal rights activists that wished to protest the Barnum and Bailey Circus in a government-owned convention center and arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

The facts of the case can be found in our earlier posts.  At issue on appeal were questions of whether the government could limit the area allowed for protests at the arena, whether the protesters could be prohibited from using profane language, and whether the convention center could prohibit the use of sound amplification.
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The plaintiff in the case against Sandy City, Utah, who sought to overturn the city’s median restriction.

Earlier this summer, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Sandy City, Utah’s restriction on sitting or standing in a street median of less than 36 inches in width met constitutional muster.  Although the regulation was principally aimed at addressing panhandling activity, the court found the regulation to be content neutral, affirming an earlier district court ruling in the case.  The court’s decision appears to offer an avenue for local governments to address safety concerns associated with panhandling, without treading on constitutionally unstable ground.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert resulted in the invalidation of many restrictions on panhandling in municipalities around the United States.  To get around the legal defects associated with panhandling prohibitions, municipalities—like Sandy City—have adopted general restrictions on sitting, standing, and remaining in street medians to achieve the same ends.
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The Planned Parenthood location on Virginia Cove in Memphis. Source: The Business Journals.

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.
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The rats and cats are back.  We first reported on this case in 2016, after the Seventh Circuit determined that it might be moot.  As it turns out, the case was not moot, and “Scabby the Rat” returned to the appeals court again.  In a ruling last month, the Seventh Circuit found that the district court properly determined that the town’s ordinance prohibiting the inflatable rat was not content based and accorded with the First Amendment.

The facts of the case can be found in our earlier post.  After the Seventh Circuit suggested that the case might be moot due to an agreement between the union and employer, the case went back to the district court.  The district court subsequently found the case not to be moot, as the union was seeking damages for its inability to place the rat in the right-of-way.  In its ruling, the district court then found that the ordinance in question—which prohibited the placement of private signs in town right-of-ways—was content neutral and survived First Amendment scrutiny.
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AFDI sought to run an advertisement that was nearly identical to a U.S. State Department advertisement. Source: American Freedom Law Center.

In a case that has been percolating for more than five years and which we reported on last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court

Two men were arrested for disorderly conduct in an anti-abortion demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas.  In addition to bringing a Fourth Amendment claim against the Little Rock Police Department, the men challenged the Arkansas disorderly conduct statute and the city’s permit requirement as violations of their free speech rights under the First Amendment.  A federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed on appeal earlier this month.

Arkansas’s criminal code contains several actions that constitute disorderly conduct, including:  fighting; in violent, threatening, or tumultuous behavior; unreasonable or excessive noise; the use of “abusive or obscene language, or mak[ing] an obscene gesture, in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response; disruption or disturbance of meetings or gatherings; obstructing traffic; and other actions.  The plaintiffs argued that the statute was vague and overbroad.  The appeals court found that the statute was not vague, primarily because it contained a mens rea requirement—that is, that the violator have a particular intent to engage in disorderly conduct.  The court used similar logic in upholding the statute against the plaintiffs’ overbreadth claim, finding that the statute was content neutral and that its objective mens rea requirement precluded an overbreadth challenge.
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