Home » News » Federal appeals court upholds sign ban at council meetings

By David L. Hudson Jr., published on August 1, 2023

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Photo courtesy iStock

Photo courtesy iStock

 

The city of Kingston, N.Y., did not violate the First Amendment rights of activists when it banned signs at City Council meetings, a federal appeals court has ruled. The court reasoned that the sign ban was a reasonable way to keep the meetings from turning into “picketing sessions.”

 

Nine activists, members of either Rise Up Kingston or Wednesday Walks 4 Black Lives, sought to bring signs to a Kingston Common Council meeting in August 2021. The activists, including lead plaintiff Rashida Tyler, sought to protest the council’s intended approval of the city’s purchase of an armored rescue vehicle.

 

The activists’ signs bore messages such as, “No Tanks, No Thanks!” and “Oh my God! No Tank! Move on!” Police officers prohibited them from bringing in the signs because a few days earlier the council had passed a rule prohibiting signs and posters at council meetings.

 

In a lawsuit in January 2022, the activists alleged a violation of their First Amendment free-speech rights. A federal district court dismissed their lawsuit, finding the ban was “reasonably related to keeping the tenor of the meetings from devolving into a picketing session inside City Hall.”

 

The activists appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit unanimously affirmed the lower court and upheld the sign and poster ban.

 

The panel first noted that the council meetings were an example of a limited public forum, where council members could limit expressive activity to certain kinds of speakers and to the discussion of certain topics. The activists agreed that the meetings were a form of limited public forum, but argued that they and their protest signs were speech on the same topic that the council members were discussing.

 

No matter, the 2nd Circuit ruled in its July 18, 2023, decision in Tyler v. City of Kingston. The panel reasoned that “in limited public fora, such as city council meetings, government entities are permitted to restrict the form or manner of speech offered by members of the public, even if such speech addresses the topic or agenda of that forum.” Thus, the city’s rule need only be reasonable and viewpoint neutral.

 

The panel next determined that the sign and poster ban was a reasonable way to ensure that council meetings didn’t become disruptive. Furthermore, the panel reasoned that the activists had alternative ways of communicating their message, such as speaking at council meetings or displaying their signs on public sidewalks.

 

The panel concluded: “To be sure, there may be cases where restrictions on the form or manner of speech — including the use of signs — in a limited public forum would be unreasonable, but Plaintiffs have not pled such facts here.” 

 

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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