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A&A: First Amendment Rights Violated by Restricting Access on Public Sidewalk

Q: We were peacefully walking by a Scientology event which was held at a hotel in Florida. There were scores of people on the sidewalk. A police officer moonlighting for Scientology told us that they did not want us on the sidewalk (which is public) and that we would have to leave (we have a video of the conversation) He told us that Scientology had a permit for the sidewalk, and we were not allowed on it. I went to the permitting office the next day and there is no such permit. I feel like our First Amendment rights were violated and that we were discriminated against as non-scientologists. What would be the next course of action?

A: Based on the information you provided, it sounds as though the Scientologists had no right to prevent you from walking on the sidewalk.  Courts recognize that certain places, such as sidewalks and parks, have traditionally been used for conduct protected by the First Amendment.  Such places are called “public forums,” and a high standard must be met before conduct protected by the First Amendment can be restricted.  However, we are not sure what remedy you would have since it sounds as though there was no government involvement in your being prevented from walking on the sidewalk, assuming, that is, that the police officer was acting as a private citizen and not in his official capacity.  That could change, however, if there was government involvement or if the government was supportive of people being prevented from walking on the sidewalk.  Such an analysis would necessarily be fact specific, and goes beyond the services the FAC can provide.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries.  In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.

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