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Suit Filed Challenging Farmington's "Free Speech" Ordinance

08 September 2015 Published in Newsroom

The suit alleges that on its face, the ordinance violates the Utah and U.S. Constitutions because it requires a permit for almost any conceivable form of public expression and imposes criminal penalties for failing to comply.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 9, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY — Today, the ACLU of Utah and the Utah Legal Clinic 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 violates the Utah and United States Constitutions because it requires a permit for almost any conceivable form of public expression and imposes criminal penalties for failing to comply. Plaintiffs are also seeking a temporary restraining order to immediately prohibit Farmington from continuing to enforce its ordinance.

The Farmington “Free Speech Zone” Ordinance turns the entire city into a place where free speech and free assembly are prohibited until the City grants those wishing to exercise those rights a permit. The permitting requirement applies to all activities in any public place, including in a traditional public forum like a sidewalk or park, and has no limits on the size of the group. City officials have absolute discretion about whether or not to issue a permit. Failure to comply with these restrictions could mean civil and criminal penalties for those engaged in activities that are clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Mr. Beckham and Ms. Levitt currently face criminal charges for their free speech activities in Farmington. As long-time animal rights activists, they held 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. They, and the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, would like to continue their public protests during Lagoon’s current season, which ends October 30, but fear that if they do not comply with the ordinance, they or their members will face criminal prosecution.

“Farmington’s ordinance gives city officials too much discretion pick who to enforce the permitting rules against,” said Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic. “That kind of discretion is impermissible because it allows officials to favor some kinds of speech and disfavor others.”

“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.”

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