Is the Right to Free Speech Protected in Private Venues?

As a frequent rider of the Dallas light rail system, I do a lot of waiting at train stations. Sometimes, I and my fellow train riders comprise a captive audience to the fire-and-brimstone ravings of a sidewalk preacher. Even if I were religious – which I’m not – I would find this moral dressing-down annoying and offensive.

Is this obnoxious man protected by the First Amendment? Can it be that his right to make a bellowing nuisance of himself supersedes my right to a quiet five-minute wait? Let’s read the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

He is, and it does. While the law forbids that preacher from whacking me on the head with his six-inch-thick Bible, it also affirms his right to speak his mind in public places. Or, depending on your persuasion, to be a nuisance. I have not, however, encountered this, or any of Dallas’s other dedicated crusaders for public salvation, preaching in restaurants or
dentists’ offices or parking garages. Obviously, these humble men – I say humble because they don’t exactly dress like TV evangelists – understand something that an alarming number of Americans don’t: the distinction between public and private venues.

During a performance at the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas, Linda Ronstadt extolled Michael Moore, producer of the controversial film “Fahrenheit 9/11. ” Kudos for Ms. Ronstadt for having a conscience and trying to spread a message she feels is important. Unfortunately, her audience disagreed, a riot ensued, and the casino’s president ordered her off the property. Subsequently, a media critic for the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that Ms. Ronstadt’s “most fundamental of liberties came under assault.” To her credit, Ms. Ronstadt didn’t personally make any such assertion.

Country singing trio The Dixie Chicks experienced a similar, but more serious, rift with a radio broadcasting company. After lead singer Natalie Maines expressed views that run counter to those of most country music fans, the Chicks’ songs
were temporarily removed from many stations’ playlists. Unlike Ronstadt, the Chicks decried the “censorship” that put a dent in their album sales. But no one tried to stifle their speech; in fact, their controversial comments weren’t even made on American soil, but in the United Kingdom. It was their songs that were dropped from radio stations, and that was
because listeners – at least while their conservative feathers were still freshly ruffled – didn’t want to hear them.

It’s not just celebrities who misunderstand their First Amendment rights. Activists of many different stripes have run afoul of the law for staging protests in private venues, including shopping malls, circus arenas, political conventions, and most famously, abortion clinic grounds.

Back to my sidewalk preacher. The police are enjoined from interfering with him and can only listen helplessly to his harangues along with the rest of us. Imagine, however, what would happen if he tried to give his performance in the lobby of the hotel down the street. Security would hustle him out before he could say “amen,” and the hotel would be well within its rights.

The First Amendment has been violated only when a government entity interferes with the freedoms it confers. It can logically be argued that the Colorado Supreme Court violated the First Amendment when it upheld a ban on media
coverage of the Kobe Bryant rape trial. It cannot, however, logically be argued that a shopping mall that prohibits anti-fur protesters from holding a rally in front of Macy’s has done the same. It can also be argued that activists who exhibit a disingenuously selective understanding of the Constitution might not be effective champions for their causes.

We are all free to express our opinions, but it does not follow that private companies are required to help disseminate those opinions – or, as in the case of Maines and Ronstadt, to overlook them when making business decisions. Sidewalk
preachers are free to harangue people waiting for public transit, but there’s no requirement for any commercial television station to broadcast their sermons. For that, I am grateful.

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