Thursday, September 30, 2004

Court: Ohio can't require speech permit

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

The state generally cannot require individuals to obtain permits for speeches, sermons and leaflet distribution on the Ohio Statehouse grounds, a divided federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Requiring the permits, which set a time and location for events at Capitol Square in downtown Columbus, is an unconstitutional infringement on individuals' free speech rights, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 decision.

The decision upholds a June 2003 ruling by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost of Columbus, who limited his ruling to apply to individuals. The 6th Circuit court said it did not consider whether permits required for groups are allowable because of Frost's limit.

In a dissent, appeals Judge Deborah Cook said she thought the state's rules for use of the Statehouse grounds are appropriate because they regulate the time, place and manner of speech but not the content of the message.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro is considering whether to appeal, spokeswoman Kim Norris said.

"We continue to maintain that there is no principal difference between individual speakers and groups on the grounds of the Statehouse," Norris said. The Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board regulates use of the Statehouse grounds and approves permits.

The case started when Douglas Parks, a self-described street preacher, began voicing a Christian message during an animal-rights rally on Capitol Square in April 2002. The animal-rights group had a permit but Parks did not.

Parks left under threat of arrest by Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers, but returned a week later and began handing out leaflets. Again he was asked to leave because he did not have a permit. He sued state officials in January 2003.

The state's attorneys argued that police need authority to limit activity around the Statehouse to protect public safety and guard against property damage.

The court said permits could be required for individuals planning stunts that could impact public safety, such as a parachute landing onto Statehouse grounds that one man had considered.

In a similar case, the 6th Circuit court reinstated a lawsuit a year ago by a clergyman who was charged in 2000 with trespassing on Statehouse grounds. The Rev. James D. Hood II refused to leave after a trooper told him he needed a permit to preach.

The appeals court ordered a Columbus federal judge to reconsider the lawsuit by Hood, who contended his rights of free speech and free exercise of religion were violated.

At the request of lawyers for Hood and the state, his lawsuit was put on hold pending a ruling in the Parks case.

Hood said he is a Christian pastor who preached and distributed written religious materials since 1982 on Statehouse grounds.

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