Minnesota State Fair and RNC Free Speech

August 24, 2008

“The First Amendment does not guarantee the right to communicate one’s views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired.”

Those were the exact words of the United States Supreme Court in Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., a 1981 case involving, of all things, the Hare Krishnas’ rights to free speech (or lack thereof) at our very own Minnesota State Fair.  And those were the exact words that federal judge Joan Ericksen used last month when she ruled that the City of St. Paul’s restrictions on protesters at the Republican National Convention are constitutionally permissible.  (Star Tribune link to the decision here.)

The Heffron case is part of a thick stack of case law affirming the right of government to reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of free expression.  Such cases have arisen around the country, but few have been more colorful than the Minnesota State Fair case.  The dispute arose days before the 1977 fair when the Hare Krishnas asserted their right to distribute literature and seek donations without being restricted to rented booths.   Remarkably, they won.  But a year later, a different Ramsey County judge dealt the Krishnas a loss.  And in 1981, the United States Supreme Court issued the Heffron decision that has effectively kept everyone — from religious groups to food-processor salesmen — tethered to booths at fairs and in airports nationwide.  (MSP’s booth rule is here.)

The decision has been cited around the country when free speech rights conflict with society’s interest in law and order and individuals’ intersets in being left alone.  The most impassioned disputes have involved requirements that anti-abortion advocates stay away from women immediately outside abortion clinics.

And now, the State Fair case has come home again, as part of a ruling that St. Paul’s plans for the RNC protesters are reasonable.  Stay tuned.

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