Las Vegas officials who contemplate the formation of "free speech" zones on Fremont Street to control demonstrators, street performers and others may want to look at a recent federal appeals court ruling.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last month tossed out regulations issued by the National Park Service to limit the distribution of materials or the carrying of signs in our national parks. It is a significant victory for First Amendment advocates.
The case involved Michael Boardley, a Minnesota man who was confronted by officers when he attempted to hand out religious fliers in a "free speech zone" in Mount Rushmore without a permit. When Mr. Boardley later tried to obtain a permit, he neither received one nor an application for one.
In ruling for Mr. Boardley, the judges noted that there is a big difference between a major demonstration involving hundreds or even thousands of people and a lone pamphleteer. In addition, they found that the government's permit requirement was far too broad -- it would even have applied to school field trips or a Girl Scout leader who discussed global warming with her troops while walking in the park.
"All of this speech is banned unless a permit is first acquired, even though none of it remotely threatens any of the government's interests," the court said.
While the court acknowledged the National Park Service's authority to require permits for large gatherings under the guise of maintaining order and safety, the "decision does set out the idea that individuals or small groups, at least within free-speech zones, ought to have wide latitude to speak, be the speech spontaneous or planned, and even to speak anonymously if they wish, without having to identify themselves on a permit application," notes Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center.
Las Vegas has failed miserably over the years in efforts to stay within constitutional bounds while crafting an ordinance regulating speech on Fremont Street. This latest court decision will likely make that task even more difficult.