Home » News » 9th Circuit rejects challenge to free-speech guidelines at state fairgrounds 

By David L. Hudson Jr., published on November 8, 2023

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A man did not have a free-expression right to distribute religious tokens at a festival inside a state-owned fairground in California, a federal appeals court has ruled.  

Burt Camenzind, an evangelical Christian, visited the Hmong New Year Festival at the California Exposition and State Fair (Cal Expo), a state-owned fairground in Sacramento County. He purchased a ticket for the event and then tried distributing coins with Bible verses on them. 

Officials told him that he could not distribute the coins inside the event, but could distribute them in certain free-speech zones outside the entrance gate. Police officers ejected Camenzind from the festival.

Camenzind sued in state court, alleging a violation of his free-speech rights under the First Amendment and the free-expression provision of the California Constitution. He contended that the free-speech guidelines of the Cal Expo on their face restricted too much speech. 

A federal district court ultimately granted Cal Expo’s motion for summary judgment on the facial challenge to the guidelines. 

On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court in Camenzind v. California Exposition and State Fair.

The 9th Circuit majority first noted that the free-expression zones located outside the fenced-in area were designated public forums. However, the panel majority “conclude[d] that the enclosed portion of Cal Expo, during the Hmong New Year Festival, was a nonpublic forum under the United States Constitution.”

Furthermore, the panel wrote, California courts have said there is a difference between paid and unpaid portions of events held at a state fair. “California courts have drawn distinctions between ticketed and unticketed portions of venues, and Camenzind pointed to no case holding that an enclosed area with a paid-entry requirement constitutes a public forum,” the opinion said.

“We conclude that the Free Speech Zones were a valid regulation of Camenzind’s speech in the exterior fairgrounds area,” the 9th Circuit majority wrote. 

The panel also addressed the free-speech guidelines inside the event. Here, the majority said officials may regulate speech in a nonpublic forum as long as the restrictions are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. The majority found that the guidelines did not violate the First Amendment. 

One judge dissented in part.  He favored sending the case back to the district court for further fact-finding.

David L. Hudson Jr. teaches First Amendment law and constitutional law classes at Belmont University College of Law. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 50 books, including The Constitution Explained: A Guide for Every American (Visible Ink Press, 2022) and The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012).  

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