Protests & Demonstrations

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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An aerial view of the Virginia Run Cove development. Source: Google.

Last month, a federal district court in Tennessee denied a motion for preliminary injunction filed by a man who wished to picket a Planned Parenthood location in a business park in Memphis.  The court determined that the private street on which the plaintiff, John Brindley, intended to picket was not a public roadway and therefore was not a traditional public forum requiring content neutral speech regulations.

Planned Parenthood’s offices are located on Virginia Run Cove, a two-lane street that serves multiple businesses located within the park.  The park is zoned as a planned unit development, and the street serves the businesses located within the park.  Brindley sought to protest Planned Parenthood on Virginia Run Cove, but was asked to move by a police officer on the premise that Virginia Run Cove is a private street.  Brindley subsequently moved to a nearby public street, but was dissatisfied that his protest location was nearly 300 feet from his target audience, Planned Parenthood.  Brindley subsequently filed his complaint in federal district court.

In conducting a forum analysis to determine whether Virginia Run Cove was a public forum for First Amendment purposes, the court noted that some public fora are privately-owned.  These areas include public sidewalks that run across private property, sidewalks on private university campuses, and even the streets of corporate-owned communities.  However, the court observed, private areas are not converted into public fora where the owner of the property allows a more limited use of the property.
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The Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse in Denver. Source: CGL Companies.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve reported on a case involving pamphleteering activities on the plaza that lies outside of the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse here in our home city of Denver, Colorado.  Things have gotten interesting again, as the Tenth Circuit last month reversed a decision of the federal district court finding the City and County of Denver in contempt following its decision to arrest an individual for distributing literature on the plaza.

We’ll first bring our readers back up to speed.  This case involved the question of whether a group could lawfully distribute literature about jury nullification on the plaza.  The Second Judicial District, a state court, prohibited demonstrations and literature distribution on the plaza.  The plaza area is owned by Denver, and the state court is a tenant on the property.  Denver Police arrested a member of the pamphleteering group, which resulted in a First Amendment claim against the city and the state court.  Denver stipulated that the plaza was a public forum, and further stipulated that it would not enforce the prohibitions on literature distribution, but the Second Judicial District disagreed with Denver’s position.  The federal court then entered a preliminary injunction against the Second Judicial District, and dismissed Denver from the case.  A prior Tenth Circuit order upheld the preliminary injunction.  On a motion for permanent injunction, the court agreed with the Second Judicial District and found that the plaza was not a traditional public forum.
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