Florida Activists Argue for Second Chance to Fight Ban on Food Sharing in Parks

A Fort Lauderdale nonprofit that helps homeless people seeks to revive its challenge to a rule banning outdoor food sharing in parks after a federal judge sided with the city.

An aerial shot of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Photo by Yanjipy from Wikipedia Commons via Courthouse News)

ATLANTA (CN) – An attorney for Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs asked an 11th Circuit panel Wednesday to revive a lawsuit challenging a city rule barring outdoor food-sharing events in public parks.

The nonprofit, whose main goal is to combat poverty and homelessness, claims that an ordinance violated its First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expressive association by barring its members from giving out food in a downtown Fort Lauderdale park without a permit and by banning similar events entirely in other public areas.

The legal battle between the organization and the city has been ongoing since 2015, when Food Not Bombs and four of its members first filed their lawsuit in defense of the weekly vegan meals they hosted in the park for nearly a decade.

Although the ordinance was repealed in 2017, Food Not Bombs is still seeking compensatory damages based on emotional distress and depletion of its resources. The group has also taken issue with a park rule that forbids the provision of food as a social service in city parks without written permission.

Representing Food Not Bombs, attorney Kirsten Anderson of Southern Legal Counsel told a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court Wednesday that the rule created an unfair “blanket ban” on food sharing.

An attorney for the city, meanwhile, argued that the rule hasn’t been enforced since 1999.

The last time the case was before the 11th Circuit in 2018, a panel ruled that outdoor food sharing qualifies as expressive conduct under the First Amendment.

The nonprofit distributed free food to passersby at weekly food-sharing events in Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan Park as part of its mission to show that “society can end hunger and poverty by redirecting resources away from the military and towards the fulfillment of the human right to food for all.”

The panel remanded the case back to a Florida federal judge, who determined that the ordinance and park rule did not violate the group’s First Amendment rights.

In a 39-page ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge William Zloch, a Ronald Reagan appointee, found that the restrictions imposed by the ordinance and rule were “content neutral time, place, or manner restrictions.”

Anderson argued Wednesday that the city can regulate the activities that take place in the park “as long as that interest is unrelated to the suppression of expression.”

“The issue here is singling out sharing food as a social service,” she told the judges.

Arguing on behalf of the city, attorney Michael Burke with local firm Johnson Anselmo questioned whether the group or the four named plaintiffs even have standing to pursue the case.

Burke said neither Food Not Bombs nor the four members were cited or required to pay fees for any violation of the park rule.

“They’ve never been cited – and they wouldn’t be cited with a violation of it. It’s a rule, not an ordinance or a law. It doesn’t have any enforcement mechanism to it,” Burke explained.

Burke told the panel that if the rule were to be enforced, it would merely involve a warning to leave the park.

“If you’re violating a park rule, someone from the city would go up to you and say you’re violating the rule and you need to stop. If you don’t stop, they’d probably have to get a law enforcement officer and give you a trespass warning and say if you won’t stop violating the rule we’re going to have to ask you to leave,” he said.

In rebuttal, Anderson told the panel that the named plaintiffs in the case were present when police arrested other Food Not Bombs volunteers. The attorney admitted that no one was required to pay any fees.

Anderson also said people can suffer constitutional harms under the rule if they’re told to leave the park and not allowed to return under threat of arrest for trespassing.

Wednesday’s panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Donald Trump appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judges Stanley Marcus and Frank Hull, both appointed by Bill Clinton.

The panel did not indicate when it will make a decision in the case.

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