Public places

Newsworthy events often occur in public places such as streets, sidewalks or parks. Since these places are open to the public and few restrictions are placed on the activities that take place in them, they are considered public forums. The public forum analysis is also used to determine speech rights in places like public schools, public television or radio stations, and government Web sites. The court will analyze whether the forum in question has been traditionally held open to all speakers, or if it is tightly controlled or used for a limited purpose.

Although governments generally may not limit or deny access to public forums, they may impose reasonable "time, place and manner" restrictions on expressive activity on such property. To comport with the First Amendment, such restrictions must satisfy a three-part test: they must be content neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and must leave open alternative channels of communication. The Supreme Court has regularly used this test at least since a 1939 case, Hague v. CIO.

Although the cases addressed by the courts typically involved political demonstrations, they are relevant to journalists and newsgathering. If the media have a right of access equal to the public's, and the public has a broad right of access to a place, then reporters will have equal access to gather news in that place.

But the fact that property is owned by the government does not necessarily make it a public forum. Courts allow greater restriction on speech and access on property that traditionally has not been open for general public use, such as courthouses, jails, government offices, city halls and public schools. This type of property is often referred to as nonpublic-forum public property.

In general, governments may exclude the news media from property that is publicly owned if authorities can show that media access would interfere with the normal operations of the facility. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Adderley v. Florida that the government, "no less than a private owner of property, has the power to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated."

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Grace that a federal law barring protesters from public sidewalks surrounding the Supreme Court was unconstitutional. It said, however, that the law could be applied to restrict picketing and leafleting on the Supreme Court grounds, such as the grass and the terrace, as well as in the building itself. Although the property is publicly owned, it has not been traditionally held open for the use of the public for expressive activities.