Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

The First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantee strongly protects a person’s right to free expression in traditional public spaces like parks and sidewalks. That includes, of course, street preachers who wish to proselytize or otherwise discuss their faith. The government is allowed, however, to place reasonable, viewpoint-neutral restrictions on otherwise protected speech.

In a recent ruling applying this concept, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a First Amendment claim brought by Jason Powell, an Iowa man who was ejected from an entrance to the Iowa State Fairgrounds where he was “sharing a religious message via oral presentation, a sign, an expressive t-shirt, and one-on-one conversations.” While there were plenty of other spots in proximity to the fair to communicate his message, the Court found fair officials were reasonable in restricting his access to the entrance.

From the opinion:

“The flow of the crowd and demands of safety are more pressing in the context of the Fair.” In this context, “[l]imiting congestion and disruption is, of course, a legitimate and reasonable goal.” The fair’s rule prohibiting impeding the flow of people in and out of the fairgrounds addresses the need to limit congestion and disruption and to facilitate safe and efficient access to the fair. And, as evidenced in the motion hearing, Powell retains alternative channels of communication on the fairgrounds, so long as he does not position himself in a way that impedes the flow of people.

The ruling affirms the District Court’s decision with respect to the First Amendment claim, but sent the case back to the court to reconsider Powell’s Due Process claim, because fair officials may have failed to provide proper notice of the restrictions.