PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The Third Circuit ruled Monday that a county-run stadium in Pennsylvania can restrict anti-circus protests to specific areas but cannot stop animal rights activists from using profanity and megaphones.
The activist group Last Chance for Animals brought the underlying lawsuit against the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority, claiming their rights were violated by not being able to hand out leaflets to arena attendees while they were nearly 15 feet away from the arena entrance.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the protesters in 2016, granting an injunction for them to hand out leaflets freely just in time for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to be held at the arena in Wilkes-Barre.
However, the Philadelphia-based federal appeals court reversed that order, finding the barricading constitutional.
“We conclude that the arena’s policy sequestering protesters to designated areas satisfies the reasonableness test for speech restrictions in nonpublic forums,” U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica wrote in a 28-page opinion.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Scirica noted that the sequestering is needed for the “intended purpose” of the arena’s concourse, which is a nonpublic forum.
“As the concourse’s function is to facilitate movement of pedestrians into and out of the arena, we cannot find unreasonable a policy sensibly designed to minimize interference with that flow,” the judge said.
While the Third Circuit approved the ban on protests near arena gates, it upheld a federal judge’s ruling that banning profanity and the use of voice amplifiers is unconstitutional.
Alexander Bilus of Saul Ewing Arnstein and Lehr, an attorney for the activists, was pleased with the court’s decision that the ban on profanity and voice amplifiers was unreasonable, but he expressed disappointment in the finding that confinement of protesters is constitutional.
“The designated protest areas prevent protesters from distributing leaflets, and leafleting is a key expressive activity protected by the First Amendment,” Bilus said in an email.
The Luzerne County Convention Center Authority is represented by Thomas Campenni, an attorney with the firm Rossen Jenkins and Greenwald. He did not immediately respond Monday to email seeking comment.
Scirica was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Joseph Greenaway, Jr. and Thomas Ambro.