Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (Petitioner), is a religious group who distributes literature and solicits funds in airports in the New York Metropolitan area. The Port Authority of New York restricts groups like the Petitioner to soliciting and distributing on the sidewalk areas of the airport. The Petitioner feels that this is restriction is an unconstitutional restrictions on their right to free speech.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Governmental regulation of speech on governmental property is valid if it is reasonable and the primary purpose of the property is not to promote free speech.
Issue. Whether an airport terminal operated by a public authority is a public forum?
Whether a regulation prohibiting solicitation in the interior of an airport terminal violates the First Amendment?
Held. The majority held that when the government acts as a proprietor, managing its internal operations, its actions are not subjected to the heightened review to which actions as a lawmaker are subject.
The tradition of airport activity does not demonstrate that airports have historically been made available for speech activity. Furthermore, they have never been intended for such activities. Airports were never intended with the primary purpose of promoting the free exchange of ideas, rather to the efficient flow of travel.
The regulation is valid on the grounds that face-to-face solicitation presents risks of duress because a solicitor can target the most vulnerable. The problem is compounded by the tight schedules many travelers face, making it unlikely they will complain to airport management. Therefore this regulation is a reasonable means for monitoring and limiting solicitation and distribution. Furthermore, since solicitation is allowed on the sidewalk area frequented by most travelers, there is broad access to the general public.
Dissent. The dissenters state that a public forum is any piece of public property that is suited for discourse in its physical character. Furthermore, the solicitation ban should be reversed because there is no evidence of fraud or coercive conduct.
Concurrence. Airports are not public fora, but this does not mean that the government can restrict speech anyway it wishes. The reasonableness inquiry should not look at whether the restrictions on speech are consistent with preserving the property for air travel, but whether they are reasonably related to maintaining the airport’s multipurpose environment.
The blanket prohibition on the distribution or sale of literature is invalid under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Constitution). However, the face-to-face solicitation is a narrow and valid regulation in this instance. Government should not have almost unlimited authority to restrict speech on its property by doing nothing more than declaring a non-speech related purpose to the area, as public places are of necessity the locus for discussion of public issues.
Discussion. The majority believes that there can be reasonable restrictions made by the government to activities in certain public places like an airport. The concurrences and dissent would rather see an evidentiary hearing for each particular case rather than a blanket exception. This case also presents the different sides to the debate concerning the definition of a public forum. A public forum being defined by the majority of the Court as a property that has “a principle purpose the free exchange of ideas consistent with the notion that government, like other property owners, has power to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated.” The location of the property has bearing on whether it is a public forum because separation from acknowledged public areas may serve to indicate that the separated property is a special enclave, subject to greater restrictions. There are also several important limitations. First, a government does not create a
public forum by inaction. Nor is a public forum created whenever members of the public are permitted freely to visit a place owner or operated by the government. Instead a decision to create a public forum must be made by intentionally opening a nontraditional forum for public discourse. This definition is more concrete and definite than the definition preferred by the concurrence, which would prefer to see a much broader definition of public forum and define it in terms of similarities. For example, in respect to an airport terminal, it is a thoroughfare full of people and lined with commercial activities, like a sidewalk, and therefore if streets and sidewalks are public fora, an airport terminal is as well through this comparison. This definition would also prefer to preserve more public areas within the public forum definition, and allow creation of forums that do not fit the traditional view of what is a public forum; i.e. streets, sidewalks and parks.