FREE SPEECH RIGHTS AT SPECIAL EVENTS

September 26, 2014


By Attorney Richard “Jake” Jackson

            There are many special events in Central Florida every month of the year which attract thousands of visitors.  Art Shows in Orlando, Mount Dora, Daytona Beach, DeLand, St. Augustine, and many other communities; Car Shows in Sanford, Mount Dora, Ocala, Jacksonville; Craft Fairs in Daytona Beach, Orlando, Clermont, Mount Dora, DeLand; Gay Pride Events in Orlando, Jacksonville, Ocala; and a variety of free Outdoor Festivals in Palm Coast, Fernandina Beach, Deltona, Sanford, Daytona Beach, Port Orange, DeLeon Springs, DeLand, Orange City, Lake Helen and virtually every community in Central Florida.  Many of these events are held in public parks or public streets pursuant to special permits issued by the local government.

It is common for individuals or groups who are not associated with the sponsors of the event to seek to distribute literature, obtain signatures on petitions, preach, or protest at the event because they want to get their messages out to the large number of people in attendance.  Very often the event organizers try to have those groups or individuals removed from the event venue.  A common source of confusion and conflict arises when a government issues a permit for what is normally a Traditional Public Forum, such as a public park, street or sidewalk, to be used by a public or private entity for a particular event.  Both the event organizers and the permitting authorities often have the misconception that the permitted area has become the private property of the event sponsor for the duration of the permit; or that the event sponsor has the exclusive right to control what messages are disseminated within the permitted area.

Federal Courts from around the country have considered these issues, and the results of those cases have been very consistent:  When there is a permitted event in a Traditional Public Forum and free access is allowed to the public to attend the event, the event area remains a Traditional Public Forum where members of the public have a right to express their views.  However, members of the public do not have a right to express their views in a manner that disrupts the event or prevents the permit holder from presenting its own message.  On the other hand, where the event is open only to invited guests or to paying customers and not to the general public, the courts have allowed the permit holders to exclude individuals attempting to express a message contrary to the message promoted by the organizers of the event.

 

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