Judge: National parks can't require permit for free speech

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 9, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Religious missionaries and political activists will have more freedom to speak out in Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks under an important appellate court ruling.

In an expansive First Amendment decision, a key appellate court struck down a longstanding National Park Service requirement that activists obtain permits before they demonstrate, distribute brochures or engage in other "expressive" activities in parks.

"These regulations penalize a substantial amount of speech that does not impinge on the government's interests," wrote Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The court's decision specifically involved Mount Rushmore National Park in South Dakota, where Michael Boardley and others were initially blocked in 2007 from distributing material praising Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

Boardley succeeded, though, in convincing the three-judge appellate panel that the National Park Service's speech permit requirement violated First Amendment free-speech guarantees.

Consequently, the decision, quietly released Friday, opens doors wider at all 391 units of the national park system.

California's Yosemite National Park, for instance, currently issues about 10 speech-related permits a year, park spokesman Scott Gediman said Monday. A table positioned near the visitors center in Yosemite Valley during the summer and stocked with Jehovah's Witnesses brochures exemplifies the activities currently requiring permits.

"It's mostly for religious material, and then we'll get a smattering of others," Gediman said of the park's permits.

At neighboring Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, spokeswoman Dana Dierkes said about 25 speech-related permits are issued annually, mostly for church groups wanting to use the park for religious services. Similarly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina issued 92 permits for church services and five permits for people distributing literature last year, park ranger Bob Wightman said Monday. He indicated it's unclear what will happen next.

"At this point, we're awaiting directions," Wightman said.

Judge Brown added several hypothetical examples, including a Girl Scout leader who musters her scouts at Glacier National Park in Montana and "proceeds to lecture them about the effects of global warming." This could be construed as a "gathering" that needs a permit, Brown reasoned.

"It is offensive, not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society, that . . . a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit," Brown noted, citing an earlier Supreme Court ruling.

A conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, Brown formerly served on the California Supreme Court. The two appellate judges who joined her decision are also Republican appointees.

National parks typically confine religious and political activities to designated "free speech areas." The court ruling doesn't eliminate these.

At Yosemite, for instance, Gediman recalled that political activists several years ago wanted to demonstrate next to the visiting secretary of the interior. The activists hoped to ensure that they appeared on TV, Gediman said, but park officials instead designated a free speech area some distance away.

Gediman added that he's unaware of Yosemite ever rejecting a speech permit application.

Michael Boardley, a Coon Rapids, Minn., resident, initially sued after he had difficulty obtaining a permit at Mount Rushmore. He subsequently received his permit but persevered with a legal challenge that underscored the potential burdens imposed by the permit requirements.

Yosemite, Boardley noted in legal filings, required speech permit applications to be submitted at least 10 days in advance, while Yellowstone National Park requested applications several months in advance.

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