WASHINGTON — A federal appellate court ruling declared Friday that federal regulations requiring individuals and groups to have permits in order to exercise their First Amendment rights in “free speech areas” and public forums at national parks and monuments are unconstitutional. Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior on behalf of Michael Boardley after a ranger at Mount Rushmore National Memorial stopped him and others for passing out religious literature without a permit near the park’s visitor center.
“The First Amendment is the only permit a Christian or any American needs to engage in free speech on public property. The court was right to reach this conclusion,” said ADF Senior Counsel Nate Kellum. “Certainly, it made no sense to enforce unconstitutional regulations that deny free speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore–a place where four men who championed America’s freedoms are immortalized in stone.”
“It is unlawful to engage in expressive activities within any of this country’s 391 national parks unless a park official first issues a permit authorizing the activity. Michael Boardley argues this licensing scheme is overbroad and therefore unconstitutional on its face. We agree,” states the opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “Requiring individuals and small groups to obtain permits before engaging in expressive activities within designated ‘free speech areas’ (and other public forums within national parks) violates the First Amendment…. We have no choice but to hold the regulations unconstitutional in their entirety.”
“This important decision means that Mr. Boardley and all Americans who visit our beautiful national parks and monuments will be able to exercise their free speech and religious expression rights without further unconstitutional barriers,” said ADF Legal Counsel Heather Gebelin Hacker.
In August 2007, Boardley and a few others passed out gospel tracts near the front entrance of Mount Rushmore without incident or comment from park officials. The next day, a park ranger approached the small group and informed them that in order to distribute the tracts, they had to have a speech permit–which would have taken two days to obtain. Boardley returned home to Minnesota and made multiple requests for a permit, but the document never arrived. The park service did not grant Boardley a permit until ADF attorneys filed the federal lawsuit Boardley v. U.S. Department of the Interior with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in November 2007.
In March 2009, the district court found that a portion of one of the regulations challenged in the lawsuit was unconstitutional. However, ADF attorneys filed an appeal with the D.C. Circuit in May 2009 contesting the continued requirement that individuals, not just groups, must obtain a permit in advance before engaging in free speech or distributing literature in designated areas of national parks across the country. Friday’s decision in the lawsuit reversed the district court’s ruling that upheld the problematic regulations.
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.