SALT LAKE CITY--In a case raising important questions about the future of free speech in public places, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah today asked the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to review the constitutionality of the restrictions Salt Lake City agreed to when it sold a central downtown block of Main Street to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Main Street is not only a traditional public forum entitled to the highest degree of First Amendment protections, but it is also a symbol of community central to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that has played such a critical role in our nation’s history,” said ACLU of Utah Legal Director Stephen Clark, adding that the sale of such an important piece of property should have been carefully crafted to protect its historical status as a public forum. The case stems from conditions of the sale that permit the LDS church to use the sidewalks on the plaza to communicate its own messages while prohibiting members of the public from exercising that same right. The ACLU of Utah argues that these conditions are unconstitutional because the sidewalks are open to the public 24 hours a day 7 days a week, are an integral part of the downtown pedestrian grid, and therefore remain a public space in which no single voice or viewpoint can be allowed to dominate. In May 2001, the Utah District Court upheld the constitutionality of the restrictions. In explaining the problems with the court ruling, Clark cited the recent example of a local resident who had been escorted off the property because he was wearing a t-shirt with the message, “I support 10% beer and 3.2% tithing” – a lighthearted comment on the Mormon church’s doctrines and practices and Utah’s liquor laws. “The district court’s ruling allows that person to be jailed while others are free to wear t-shirts proclaiming messages endorsed by the LDS church.” “The practical effect of the court’s ruling is discrimination,” Clark continued, “because two people who are in a public place doing the same thing will be treated differently just because of the ideas they communicate. That is contrary to the First Amendment, which protects even offensive ideas.” Reverend Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, expressed some of the larger issues at stake if Salt Lake City insists on maintaining these discriminatory conditions. “People of many faiths, backgrounds, and experiences contributed to the building of this great city, and contribute today to its growing diversity. Now that the city has sold Main Street and allowed the new owner to silence and banish anyone who might offer an alternative voice or experience, we feel as though we are welcome here only so long as we are neither seen nor heard.” In its appeal, the ACLU of Utah is asking the Tenth Circuit to reverse the district court’s ruling and restore conditions that do not discriminate against any one viewpoint. In similar cases in Massachusetts and Nevada, courts have held that such public places are subject to First Amendment protections, regardless of who holds legal title. --end--