L.A. Airport’s Free Speech Curb Upset by High Court : ‘Jews for Jesus’ Win Rights Case
A unanimous Supreme Court today ruled unconstitutional a Los Angeles International Airport ban on all free speech activities in trying to prevent distribution of leaflets and soliciting of donations in its terminals.
The court said government-run airports may not impose such sweeping bans but left undecided whether public airports may prohibit all people from distributing literature inside terminals--thus leaving unresolved an issue affecting tens of millions of Americans.
The presence at airports of people distributing political and religious literature, and perhaps soliciting contributions, has become almost as commonplace in recent years as security devices.
Today’s ruling, in a case brought by a group calling itself Jews for Jesus, was a defeat for the city board that runs the Los Angeles airport. The board in 1983 passed a resolution that said all terminal buildings “shall be limited to airport-related uses.”
The resolution, however, said “sidewalk areas immediately outside the terminal facilities may be used for activities protected by the First Amendment.”
The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but such freedoms are not absolute.
Jews for Jesus challenged the airport resolution in 1984 after Howard Snyder, one of its ministers, was ordered to stop distributing leaflets.
Lawyers for the group said Snyder was following its policy in refraining from either soliciting or accepting any money while handing out the literature. They said he was not harassing, touching or otherwise annoying any other person.
The group’s lawsuit charged that the ban violated free speech rights because the airport is a traditional public forum--similar to a city park or city sidewalk--where speech is constitutionally protected.
Today’s decision left unanswered whether airports are traditional public forums--an issue that could return to the court if a narrower free speech limitation imposed at an airport is challenged.
Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that under the resolution “virtually every individual who enters . . . may be found to violate the resolution by engaging in some First Amendment activity.”
“We think it obvious that such a ban cannot be justified even if LAX were a non-public forum because no conceivable governmental interest would justify such an absolute prohibition of speech,” O’Connor wrote.
She said the airport officials’ attempt to “create a virtual First Amendment Free Zone at LAX” goes far beyond trying to cope with problems “such as congestion or the disruption of activities of those who use LAX.”
(James R. Kapel, an assistant city attorney representing the Los Angeles Department of Airports, said the ruling will have no immediate effect at the airport “because we haven’t been enforcing the policy.”
(“We haven’t had an opportunity to talk to management about the decision,” Kapel said. “But we are disappointed that (the court) did not address the issue of whether the board has the power to limit the uses inside its terminals to airport-related business.”
(Tuvya Zaretsky, associate executive director of Jews for Jesus in San Francisco, said, “‘This ruling by the Supreme Court makes me very proud to be an American. It reaffirms the freedom of religion and freedom of speech guaranteed in the Constitution. . . . It means that we’re going to continue telling people at airports that Jesus is the Messiah.”)