Do You Have First Amendment Rights in San Francisco Parks or Not?

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Now valid in National Parks! Right?
Jurisdictional lines are funny things. Here in San Francisco you can hoist your banners and beat your drum to express the message of your choosing per your First Amendment Rights -- until you tread onto Ocean Beach, the Presidio, or other federal land.

The National Park System doesn't let just anybody exercise his or her First Amendment rights. You need to get a permit first. This system has long rankled First Amendment activists. And, last week, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court ruled that the park system's free speech restrictions are "antithetical to the core." How this will affect your First Amendment rights here in San Francisco remains to be seen. But, then, it also seems federal officials have an unusual idea of just what your First Amendment rights are.

Alexandra Picavet is the spokeswoman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which comprise San Francisco and Marin's National Parks. She said that local activists are almost always granted their First Amendment permits. But the definition of "First Amendment" she says the National Park System uses is curious.

"Sometimes people ask for a First Amendment permit when something is not a First Amendment activity," she says. "A First Amendment permit is supposed to be a communication from the public to the government about a policy. It is not an awareness campaign." Asked to provide an example of an "awareness campaign," she brought up "awareness of, say, childhood diabetes."

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Ed Batista
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area -- just the place to talk about diabetes?
You don't have to be a First Amendment lawyer to think it's a bit screwy for someone to maintain your Constitutional rights to free speech don't encompass talking about childhood diabetes. Lawrence Walters is a First Amendment lawyer. He thinks it's screwy, too.

Walters argued a case similar to last week's D.C. Circuit ruling in Florida in 2000. He represented a group of nudists protesting on Canaveral National Seashore who were prosecuted for demonstrating without a permit. That case worked its way up to the 11th Circuit Court, which agreed that the National Park Service's permitting system was a violation of First Amendment rights.

"It's a familiar fact that the National Park Service has extremely broad discretion ... to deny permits," he says. Talk about freedom of speech not covering diabetes awareness "confirms my belief and understanding that the Park Service acts arbitrarily and sometimes discriminatorily in deciding who gets and who does not get a permit. It's absurd to think an awareness campaign is not covered by the First Amendment. That is core political speech." 

Picavet says she is unsure how San Francisco-area National Parks will handle First Amendment issues in the days and weeks ahead; national officials have not yet sent any "guidance" to local outposts. The D.C. Circuit Court's ruling is not binding here in the Bay Area -- nor is the 11th Circuit Court ruling won by Walters a decade ago. But Walters feels these two rulings indicate that anyone denied a permit here is highly likely to win in court -- and were the National Park Service to insist on requiring First Amendment permits after two circuit courts have assailed the system, it would amount to "bad faith."

Local diabetes activists who are not conflict-averse are therefore urged to head to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and conduct an "awareness campaign."

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