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Letter Asks SLC to Guarantee Free Speech Rights During Olympics

04 June 2001 Published in Local Policy Work

Letter to Mayor Ross Anderson and Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse outlining our position on free speech activities during the Olympic games.

 June 4, 2001

Mayor Ross C. Anderson
451 South State Street
Salt Lake City, Utah 84111

Chief Rick Dinse
315 East 200 South
Salt Lake City, Utah 84111

Dear Mayor Anderson and Chief Dinse:

Thank you for meeting with us on May 30 to discuss the regulation of free-speech activities during the Olympics. We write to formalize some points we discussed and to outline some additional points.

We begin with the general proposition that, even during the Olympics, the public streets and sidewalks in Salt Lake City are “traditional public forums.,” Any restrictions on speech in such forums are subject to the highest constitutional scrutiny. We acknowledge that officials responsible for public safety have legitimate security concerns for which some security measures can be taken. As important as it is to maintain public safety, however, that aim cannot be accomplished by restrictions that deny constitutional rights.

Salt Lake City has an existing ordinance governing access to traditional public forums. In crafting and implementing any additional regulations in light of public safety requirements during the Olympics, the law requires that the City be guided by three fundamental principles: Any regulations must be content neutral; they must be narrowly tailored to serve the government interest in public safety; and they must ensure that speakers can reach their intended audience. We do not believe those principles permit either blanket prohibitions on demonstrations in traditional public forums or any approach that would limit demonstrations to designated “free-speech” areas, and we are glad you confirmed that the City is not contemplating such extreme measures.

We agreed it might be useful to analyze each such forum individually and to identify the basic guidelines for reasonable regulations in each.

1. “Olympic Square”-- We understand that a large area of downtown Salt Lake City, yet to be specifically delineated but comprising a number of public streets and sidewalks, will be designated as “Olympic Square,” referred to as “SLOS.” The area will be fenced, and will have certain limited points of ingress and egress.

This is similar to the “secured zone” law enforcement officials identified around the Staples Center in Los Angeles in connection with the 2000 Democratic Convention, and the area secured by an “Omnibus Special Events Permit” to the Republican National Committee for the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The ACLU successfully challenged exclusive-use designations of those venues, and would challenge any effort to grant SLOC exclusive access to SLOS. We trust that will not be necessary, however, because you reiterated that expressive activities will be allowed within SLOS, subject only to reasonable, content-neutral time, place and manner regulations. We discussed the following general guidelines:

A. The City can take reasonable security measures as to all persons who enter SLOS. Such measures would have to be justifiable without regard to expressive content. Thus, for example, individuals will not be denied entry because of the expressive content of a pin, item of apparel, flag, banner or leaflet, and they will be able to circulate freely within SLOS, to distribute leaflets, etc.

B. The City proposed that certain areas within SLOS be designated for demonstrations, and we accept that proposal in principle, assuming that the areas provide speakers meaningful access to their intended audience. You requested that we identify specific areas we would find acceptable. We cannot do so, especially given that we do not know which speakers might wish to uses the areas, which activities those speakers might wish to highlight on which days, or precisely which areas are already dedicated to other activities – and, therefore, which areas can be used to ensure meaningful access to the speakers’ intended audience. We can however, offer some general observations and suggestions:

i. What is plainly not acceptable is the suggestion that a single area limited to 25 persons will suffice. SLOS comprises several city blocks designed to accommodate tens of thousands of people. A single area for demonstrations with a limit of 25 persons represents a 10 x 20 foot box (assuming 8 square feet per person). Such a limited accommodation plainly would be inconsistent with the City’s stated desire, and responsibility, to protect free speech in this public forum.

ii. We believe a minimum reasonable accommodation would comprise at least 2 demonstration areas for up to 100 people, in locations that will allow the speakers to communicate with their intended audiences. Each would require designation of a 20 x 40 foot area, which seems very modest given the size of SLOS. One application has already been submitted for a permit for up to 100 people for an area near the Medals Plaza; another is pending for a site adjacent to the Delta Center.

C. Expressive activities cannot be prohibited or interrupted unless there is a clear and present danger to public safety. If limitations are to be imposed on unticketed entry to SLOS at specific times, demonstrators must be apprised of those limitations so they can be sure they won’t be prohibited from entering when they are scheduled for access to demonstration areas.
2. Streets and Sidewalks Adjacent to Olympic Square:
A. The City can impose reasonable, content-neutral time, place and manner regulations on demonstrations on the streets and sidewalks adjacent to SLOS. Any such regulations must be narrowly tailored to further compelling government interests, however, and must ensure that demonstrators have reasonable means to reach their intended audience. During the 2000 Democratic Convention, the City of Los Angeles designated a single demonstration area 260 yards from the Staples Center. The ACLU successfully challenged the City’s designation of that area because it was not narrowly tailored and did not provide adequate alternative means of communication. Similarly, any effort by Salt Lake City to limit demonstrations outside Olympic Square to Pioneer Park – ½ mile away from Olympic Square – would be subject to challenge.
3. Other Traditional Public Forums:
A. Demonstrators must be allowed reasonable access to streets and sidewalks adjacent to other Olympic venues, such as the Gallivan Center, the City and County Building, Rice Eccles Stadium, etc. That access must be close enough to the venues to ensure demonstrators can reach their intended audience.
4. Pioneer Park and Protest Route:
A. As we stated, we are not opposed to the designation of a separate site for staged free-speech events and a protest parade route that would accommodate a larger number of participants than could reasonably be accommodated in SLOS, so long as demonstrations are not limited to those areas. Because DRAC is one of the groups that wants to use such an area, it must be accessible to the disabled. Moreover, the area must be visible and readily accessible to persons going to and from SLOS and the other downtown areas. We understand this is the City’s intent.

We wish to raise a general concern about timing. The existing permit process does not impose any limit on the length of time the City can take in considering applications for permits. Some applications have been pending for months. You indicated that plans for the downtown area should be sufficiently detailed by August to allow consideration of specific permit requests, but the above zone-based approach obviates the need to await final determination of the boundaries of SLOS or other venues, which you admitted could change right up to the time of the Olympics. Accordingly, the City should either grant or deny pending permit requests at once, and ensure that it has the resources in place promptly to consider and grant or deny future permit requests, so that groups interested in demonstrating will know whether they have permits or not more or less immediately after they apply for permits.

We conclude with one final observation. At a couple of points during our discussion, reference was made to a governmental interest in protecting members of the public from unwanted messages. That is fundamentally inconsistent with the First Amendment. In a traditional public forum, people do not have the right to be free from unwanted messages; they have the right to turn away from such messages. We will vigorously oppose any regulation that seeks to limit expressive activities in ways that prevent speakers from communicating with their intended audiences.

Thank you again for taking the time to meet with us.


Janelle P. Eurick, Staff Attorney
Stephen C. Clark, Legal Director