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Supreme Court upholds Chicago park-permit rules

By The Associated Press

01.15.02

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WASHINGTON — A city system to decide which groups or events may use scarce parkland is not an unconstitutional curb on free speech, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled today.

Chicago's procedures for granting or denying permits have nothing to do with regulating the content of speech in city parks, and everything to do with efficiency and public safety, the court said in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

The ruling in Thomas v. Chicago Park District underscores localities' power to regulate use of their own resources, so long as the rules are "content neutral."

"The Park District's ordinance does not authorize a licensor to pass judgment on the content of speech," Scalia wrote. "None of the grounds for denying a permit has anything to do with what a speaker might say."

The court upheld lower court rulings against a group whose 1997 application was rejected. The Windy City Hemp Development Board wanted to hold a rally in support of legalized marijuana.

The hemp group argued that the city's permit decisions can be capricious, and that the system gives too much power to administrators to pick and choose which events to allow.

"We think not," Scalia wrote.

Chicago requires permits for park events with more than 50 people and receives thousands of requests a year.

Administrators may reject a permit for one or more reasons, including if the park is already booked, the requested activity is dangerous, or if the application is incomplete or untruthful.

"On balance, we think the permissive nature of the ordinance furthers, rather than constricts, free speech," Scalia wrote.

The Bush administration supported the park system in the case.

Update

Justices avoid appeals-process question in park-permit case
Analysis Free-speech advocates had hoped high court would decide whether permit-seekers are entitled to quick results in appeals or merely prompt access to courts.  01.16.02

Previous

High court appears unreceptive to challenge of Chicago park-permit rules
Analysis Several justices criticize attorney's prior-restraint argument, preferring to view permit process as acceptable 'time, place or manner' regulation.  12.04.01

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

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