A lawyer for the City of Los Angeles today urged the Supreme Court to let public airports ban religious groups from distributing literature in passenger terminals.
Attorney James R. Kapel told the justices the city-run airport is not like a city sidewalk or park, and should be able to exclude activities not related to the airport's operation.
"An airport is not a traditional public forum," Kapel said.
A group known as Jews for Jesus is challenging the constitutionality of a Los Angeles International Airport policy barring the group's members from distributing leaflets.
The Constitution's First Amendment prohibits government restrictions on freedom of speech and the practice of religion, the group says.
Justice Thurgood Marshall asked Kapel, "What right do you have to stop it? You're singling out one group of people. . . . You're singling out a group you don't want to use your facility."
Justice John Paul Stevens interrupted Kapel's argument by suggesting that the airport policy prohibits "what the First Amendment protects."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist also questioned the policy, which says airport buildings "shall be limited to airport-related uses."
A 1983 resolution passed by the city's Board of Airport Commissioners said "sidewalk areas immediately outside the terminal facilities may be used for activities protected by the First Amendment."
Lawyers for Jews for Jesus said the resolution violates free-speech rights because the airport, even inside its terminal buildings, is a traditional public forum.