ATLANTA (CN) – Reviving a constitutional challenge in Florida, the 11th Circuit said that a Fort Lauderdale nonprofit may have a First Amendment right to host meals in a public park where homeless people tend to gather.
In a 20-page decision brimming with literary and historical references, the Atlanta-based federal appeals court notes that understanding symbolism is critical to viewing the act of food sharing as an expression of the mission of the group Food Not Bombs.
“History may have been quite different had the Boston Tea Party been viewed as mere dislike for a certain brew and not a political protest against the taxation of the American colonies without representation,” U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote for a three-person panel.
Emphasizing the importance of context, Jordan noted that it is what makes a sit-in obvious as a protest, or distinguishes the physical act of walking from joining a parade or a picket line.
The ruling delves into the Bible — Jesus sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners alike — as well as the first Thanksgiving. But it opens with Shakespeare.
“Food shared with company differs greatly from a meal eaten alone,” Jordan wrote. “Unlike a solitary supper, a feast requires the host to entertain and the guests to interact. Lady Macbeth knew this, and chided her husband for ‘not giv[ing] the cheer’ at the banquet depicted in Shakespeare’s play. As she explained: ‘To feed were best at home; From thence, the sauce to meat is ceremony. Meeting bare without it.’”
Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs initiated the suit here in 2015 in defense of the vegan and vegetarian meal it hosts every week downtown.
Represented by Southern Legal Counsel, the nonprofit argued that a permitting requirement passed in 2014 for public food distribution in Stranahan Park violated its rights of free speech and free association.
Though the case floundered initially — a federal judge found that outdoor food sharing did not qualify as expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment — the 11th Circuit reversed on Wednesday.
On remand, the District Court must decide if the city’s ordinance violates the First Amendment or whether it is unconstitutionally vague. The ruling notes that Fort Lauderdale has not enforced its new restrictions on public food distribution since 2015.
Nathan Pim, a volunteer for the Fort Lauderdale chapter of Food Not Bombs, applauded the decision. “Obviously we’ve been working on this for a long time,” Pim said in a phone interview. “We’re very happy to have a strong ruling that asserts that our food sharings are protected under the First Amendment. We look forward to seeing what comes next.”
In the ruling, Judge Jordan explains all the ways that Food Not Bombs distinguishes its weekly meals from “simply eating together in the park.”
Apart from its banners and the choice of venue, Jordan said “it matters that FLFNB uses the sharing of food as the means for conveying its message, for the history of a particular symbol or type of conduct is instructive in determining whether the reasonable observer may infer some message when viewing it.”
“On this record, FLFNB’s food sharing events are more than a picnic in the park,” the ruling continues. “FLFNB has established an intent to ‘express[ ] an idea through activity,’ and the reasonable observer would interpret its food sharing events as conveying some sort of message.”
The city of Fort Lauderdale did not respond to a request for comment.