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Federal Court Rules UDOT Free Speech Policies Unconstitutional

05 November 2013 Published in Newsroom

iMatter2The federal district court in Utah struck down as unconstitutional UDOT’s insurance and indemnification requirements for groups and individuals seeking permits to march on state highways.



November 5, 2013

Federal Court Rules UDOT Free Speech Policies Unconstitutional, Strikes Down Insurance and Indemnification Requirements for March Permits

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - Late yesterday, the federal district court in Utah struck down as unconstitutional UDOT’s insurance and indemnification requirements for groups and individuals seeking permits to march on state highways. The plaintiffs in the suit, represented by the ACLU of Utah and the Utah Legal Clinic, were people and groups who planned several marches on State Street in Salt Lake City to raise awareness of and seek solutions to climate change. Though the plaintiffs had obtained permits from Salt Lake City for their events, they were also required to get additional permission from UDOT, since State Street is a state highway. UDOT, in turn, required that anyone seeking to march on a state highway obtain an insurance policy with $1 million per incident and $2 million aggregate coverage. Additionally, UDOT required anyone participating in the marches to sign indemnification agreements protecting UDOT: that rule was later modified only to oblige the organizer to sign such an agreement. These rules, which forced plaintiffs to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for private insurance and to indemnify UDOT for unforeseeable amounts, deterred them from marching on State Street. In two cases, organizers decided to march on State Street’s sidewalk: other events were cancelled.

The plaintiffs brought this suit in 2011 to overturn UDOT’s insurance and indemnification policies. In yesterday’s ruling, the court found that the insurance and indemnification requirements served the legitimate government interest of protecting the state from financial harm. The court pointed out, however, that rules that substantially burden speech, especially political speech, must be narrowly tailored to meet the interest. The court concluded that UDOT’s requirements in this case were not carefully tailored and impermissibly burdened speech. The requirements were applied in an overly broad manner, without taking into account, for example, other methods to prevent losses to UDOT related to street marches or ways to ensure that people and groups with low incomes would not be priced out of using the street for their events. The court also acknowledged that symbolic importance of being able to march down State Street in Salt Lake City.

“The court’s ruling sends a strong signal that the First Amendment is alive and well, and government agencies must take great care in burdening free speech activities,” said John Mejia, Legal Director of the ACLU of Utah. “Political speech drives and keeps vibrant our democracy, and any win that protects speech is a win for all of us,” he concluded.

“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 of the Utah Legal Clinic. “We are thrilled that the court has done away with this unequal arrangement and that everyone can make their voice heard on State Street, regardless of their income.”

For more information, including the court's decision, on this case, go to www.acluutah.org/legal-work/resolved-cases/item/512-imatter-utah-v-utah-department-of-transportation

Read a Salt Lake Tribune article "Federal judge rules UDOT curbed marchers’ free speech rights" (PDF) >> 11/5/13


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