(CN) - The 11th Circuit upheld a Florida law that restricts citizens from feeding homeless people in some parks, finding that it did not violate the First Amendment.
Orlando Food Not Bombs, an anti-poverty group that considers food a fundamental human right, and First Vagabonds Church of God, a religious organization for the homeless, organized homeless feedings at Orlando's signature Lake Eola Park starting in 2005. After residents near the park complained that the homeless attending the group feedings later dispersed into their neighborhoods, the city enacted an ordinance that required groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in downtown-area parks. The ordinance also limited groups to two permits per park each year.
While Orlando argued that it needed the ordinance to protect parks and regulate large-group feedings through a permit system, Orlando Food Not Bombs and the church alleged that the law violated freedom of speech and religion, as well as the free-assembly clause of the First Amendment.
A federal judge originally ruled in favor of the homeless advocates, and permanently enjoined the city from enforcing the ordinance. After a panel of the Atlanta-based federal appeals court partially reversed the ruling and vacated the injunction against the city, the full circuit decided to review the case en banc. A 10-judge panel heard oral arguments that addressed the issue of whether the ordinance, as applied to Orlando Food Not Bombs, violated freedom of speech.
Though the court found that group feedings are "expressive and entitled to some protection under the First Amendment," it added that the city ordinance was a reasonable restriction that did not violate free-speech rights.
"Orlando Food Not Bombs is not prevented by the ordinance from conducting as many political rallies, demonstrations, distributions of literature, or any other expressive activities as it likes at Lake Eola Park," Judge William Pryor wrote for the court.
Orlando has a substantial interest in managing parks and preventing the overuse of any one park for large-group feedings, and the ordinance plainly served those interests.
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