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Victory! Free Speech Returns To Utah’s State Roads

 Liberty Reporter: The 2014 Winter Newsletter >>

iMatter Utah v. UDOT

In November of 2013, the federal court in Utah made it clear that the First Amendment and the fight for freedom of speech are alive and well. The federal district court struck down the Utah Department of Transportation’s insurance and indemnification requirements, for those seeking permits to march on state highways, as unconstitutional. This is a true victory and rids Utah of the “two-tiered system” described to by Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic.

“UDOT’s insurance requirements created a two tiered system for speakers: those who could afford insurance could march on the street, and those without the means to pay were relegated to the sidewalk,” said Stewart Gollan.

The case we brought in 2011, when the ACLU of Utah and the Utah Legal Clinic sued the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) on behalf of members and supporters of iMatter Utah. iMatter Utah is a local youth-driven organization that works to encourage public discussion on climate change and initiate action. Members of iMatter Utah were organizing, as they called it, a Marade (a parade and march). Their plan was to march from the federal building at 125 South State Street to Library Square to bring awareness of environmental issues that affect Utahns. However, because iMatter planned on using a section of State Street that was part of Utah State Highway 89, organizers were required to obtain permits from UDOT in addition to Salt Lake City.

iMatter organizers then discovered that UDOT would require them to buy an insurance policy for one million dollars per incident and two million dollars in aggregate coverage. In addition, UDOT required anyone and everyone who participated in the march to sign indemnification agreements that protected UDOT weeks ahead of the time the event would take place. This rule was later changed to make the organizers the only people obligated to sign indemnification agreements.

Salt Lake City issued a “free expression” permit covering the iMatter’s Utah’s Marade. Nevertheless, UDOT insisted that iMatter Utah obtain a large liability insurance policy. These conditions successfully deterred the iMatter organizers from marching on State Street. They instead marched on State Street’s sidewalks.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU of Utah and the Utah Legal Clinic challenged the following as unconstitutional: “(i) UDOT’s requirement that unfunded groups wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and to freedom of speech must obtain expensive liability insurance policies; (ii) UDOT’s requirement that all event participants must sign waivers and releases, weeks in advance, as a pre-condition to exercising their First Amendment rights; and (iii) UDOT’s requirement that event organizers must certify, weeks in advance, that all participants have signed UDOT’s waivers and releases.”

In November, 2013, the Utah federal court struck down UDOT’s requirements on three grounds. First, the court found that the UDOT rules substantially burdened speech. Second, the rules were not narrowly tailored to balance the government’s interest and the interest of protecting free speech. Finally, UDOT failed to balance interests when it broadly applied requirements without taking into account other means to ensure the prevention of losses to UDOT or how to allow everyone to protest, despite their lack of financial resources. Importantly, the court concluded that there was a symbolic importance to being able to march down State Street. The State has initiated an appeal of the district court’s ruling.

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