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Salt Lake City issues free speech 'guidelines'

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Salt Lake City issues free speech ‘guidelines’

  • Mayor Rocky Anderson, an ACLU member, issued guidelines on what people may say in public.

Feb. 11, 2004 — In the latest in a series of ironies concerning the use of Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City, Utah, the city’s mayor — a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union — issued a set of “free speech guidelines” last week that purport to outline the limits of constitutionally protected expression.

Because the guidelines do not carry the force of law, a person cannot be arrested for violating them. But Mayor Rocky Anderson told The Associated Press on Feb. 9 that the guidelines are intended to encourage street preachers and demonstrators at the plaza to behave “more courteously.”

The plaza has been a site of protests and confrontations since it was purchased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for $8.1 million in 1999. The city originally retained a public right of access to the space, but it relinquished that right in a land-swap transaction last year. The land-swap deal was approved by a 6-0 vote of the all-Mormon city council, triggering a wave of complaints about the church’s influence in local politics.

Seeking to quell the tensions, Anderson released the free speech guidelines Feb. 6. The three-page document, available on the city’s Web site, is labeled “An educational document prepared by the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office.” It consists of a simplified explanation of some of the basic tenets of First Amendment jurisprudence.

For example, the guidelines warn that free speech is not absolute — “fighting words” and obscenity are not protected — and that the government may place some restrictions on the time, place or manner of speech. It cites examples culled from case law.

Jeffrey Hunt, a Salt Lake City media and First Amendment attorney, said the guidelines do not contain any clear inaccuracies. But he cautioned that the mere act of publishing such a document may have a chilling effect on speech.

“I have no disagreement with the content of the guidelines, but with the message it sends to issue them,” Hunt said. “The city would be better off trying to educate the public about the benefits of free speech.”

Hunt also doubts the guidelines will have the intended effect of making discourse at the plaza more civil. “Street preachers [at the plaza] will not be poring over the guidelines and conforming their speech and conduct to them,” he said.

The issuance of free-speech guidelines by a former ACLU attorney is the latest in a series of unusual role reversals caused by the plaza controversy. In August 2003, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Anderson, an ACLU member since 1978, for his role in relinquishing the city’s easement. And last month, the civil rights group — normally aligned with the news media on free speech matters — sought to compel the testimony of two journalists covering the story.


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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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