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Activists Defeat Farmington’s Unconstitutional “Free Speech” Ordinance

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2015 Fall Newsletter >>

beckham lagoon protestOn September 9, the ACLU of Utah and the Utah Civil Rights & Liberties Foundation filed a complaint on behalf of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, Jeremy Beckham, and Alexis Levitt challenging Farmington City’s “Free Speech” Ordinance. The suit alleges that on its face, the Ordinance violated the Utah and United States Constitutions because it required a permit for almost any conceivable form of public expression and imposed criminal penalties for failing to comply. 

As long-time animal rights activists, Mr. Beckham and Ms. Levitt participated in peaceful protests on the sidewalk and on a public right of way to protest the conditions of the animals at Lagoon.  After the protests, they were charged with misdemeanor offenses of the Ordinance because they had not obtained a permit for those free speech and assembly activities. 

As soon as the lawsuit was filed, the U.S District Court issued an unopposed order immediately halting enforcement of the Ordinance. Soon after, Farmington repealed the Ordinance and the criminal charges against Mr. Beckham and Ms. Levitt were dropped.  The Utah Animal Rights Coalition now plans to continue their public protests during Lagoon’s current season, which ends October 30.  They can do so with the assurance that they will not face criminal charges for not obtaining permits.

The repeal of the Ordinance is a major victory for free speech and assembly rights.  The Ordinance turned all of Farmington into a place where free speech and free assembly were prohibited until the City granted those wishing to exercise those rights a permit. The permitting requirement applied to all activities in any public place, including in a traditional public forum like a sidewalk or park, and had no limits on the size of the group. City officials had absolute discretion about whether or not to issue a permit. 

“When cities put speech and assembly restrictions on a traditional public forum like a sidewalk, they need to tread carefully,” said John Mejia, Legal Director of the ACLU of Utah. “The First Amendment guarantees robust public discussion, and courts are very wary of laws that impose barriers to speech, particularly blanket permitting requirements.”

More about this case can be found at http://www.acluutah.org/legal-work/resolved-cases