First Amendment

Limit on food distribution to homeless people in parks violates First Amendment, 11th Circuit rules

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A federal appeals court on Tuesday sided with a nonprofit organization that provides free food to homeless people in a park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, finding that a city rule that limits the practice is unconstitutional.

In its ruling, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta held that Fort Lauderdale Park Rule 2.2, which requires the city’s written permission for “social service food-sharing events” in all its parks, violates the First Amendment rights of Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs.

“The park rule commits the regulation of FLFNB’s protected expression to the standardless discretion of the city’s permitting officials,” wrote Senior Judge Stanley Marcus in the panel’s opinion. “It provides no guidance and in no way explains when, how or why the city will agree in writing. … It is neither narrowly drawn to further a substantial government interest that is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, nor, as applied, does it amount to a reasonable time, place and manner regulation on expression in a public forum.”

The 11th Circuit reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the city and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Courthouse News Service reported on its decision.

Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs has hosted weekly food-sharing events in Fort Lauderdale’s downtown Stranahan Park for several years as part of its mission to end hunger and poverty.

The nonprofit organization and several of its members sued the city of Fort Lauderdale in 2015, alleging that the park rule and an ordinance that prohibited social service food distribution in most parks violated their rights to free expression and expressive association.

The district court disagreed, holding that the nonprofit organization’s food sharing was not expressive conduct that was entitled to First Amendment protection. The court also held that the park rule and ordinance, which was later repealed, were not unconstitutionally vague.

A panel of the 11th Circuit in 2018 reversed the decision and returned the case to the district court, which again ruled a year later that the city of Fort Lauderdale’s regulations were not unlawfully vague or a violation of the First Amendment.

In its latest decision in the case Tuesday, the federal appeals court wrote that although the city imposed the rule to prevent sanitation problems and other logistical issues that come with crowded food distribution events, it failed to narrowly tailor the measure to address its interest in park maintenance.

“Fatally, the park rule imposes a permitting requirement without implementing any standards to guide city officials’ discretion over whether to grant a permit,” Marcus wrote for the panel. “Under the terms of the rule, a city official may deny a request for permission to hold an expressive food-sharing event in the park because he disagrees with the demonstration’s message, because he doesn’t feel like completing the necessary paperwork, because he has a practice of rejecting all applications submitted on Tuesdays, or for no reason at all.”

Jodi Siegel, executive director of Southern Legal Counsel, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement Wednesday the decision was “a significant First Amendment victory, hard-won after nearly seven years of litigation and two federal court appeals.”

Fort Lauderdale city attorney Alain E. Boileau told Courthouse News Service that the city is disappointed in the ruling but continuing to analyze the opinion and determine its next steps.

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