First Amendment

Outdoor food sharing is expressive conduct and 'more than a picnic in the park,' appeals court says

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Lisovskaya Natalia/

Sharing food with the homeless in a public park by a group with a political message is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Last Wednesday’s decision by the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the first federal appellate opinion on the issue, according to a press release by lawyers for the winning litigant, Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs. The Sun Sentinel and Courthouse News Service have coverage.

The decision reverses a trial court’s ruling that the shared meal was not expressive conduct. On remand, the trial court will have to determine whether the Florida city’s ordinances that restrict food-sharing in parks violate the First Amendment.

The treatment of homeless people in the city is an issue of concern in the Fort Lauderdale community, according to the appellate opinion by Judge Adalberto Jordan.

Food Not Bombs shares free vegetarian food at weekly events at Stranahan Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The group serves food to communicate a message that society could end poverty and hunger if its resources were redirected from the military. The group also views food as a human right.

Jordan noted that Food Not Bombs sets up tables and banners and distributes literature at the events. Its logo is a clenched fist holding a carrot. Those who participate are invited to share the meal at the same time, which also has social implications, Jordan said.

“On this record,” Jordan wrote, the food-sharing events “are more than a picnic in the park.” A reasonable observer would infer some sort of message about community and care for all citizens, he said.

“Like the flag, the significance of sharing meals with others dates back millennia,” Jordan wrote. “The Bible recounts that Jesus shared meals with tax collectors and sinners to demonstrate that they were not outcasts in his eyes. … In 1621, Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated the harvest by sharing the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth. President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863.”

The case is Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs, v. City of Fort Lauderdale.

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