Court upholds National Forest Service rules on group gatherings in parks

Friday, October 30, 1998

Federal regulations requiring noncommercial groups of 75 or more people that want to gather on National Forest Service land to first obtain a special-use permit do not violate the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Four members of the Rainbow Family, a group that gathers in natural surroundings to celebrate nature, were convicted of violating the regulations because they refused to obtain a permit from the National Forest Service for a June 1996 gathering in Pisgah National Forest in Madison County, N.C.

On appeal, the group contended that the regulations violated their First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights. Federal officials countered that the regulations serve three purposes: protection of resources on National Forest System lands; allocation of space among various uses and activities on the lands; and public health and safety concerns.

Both sides agreed that the activities of the Rainbow Family constituted expressive conduct triggering First Amendment analysis. Attorneys on each side further agreed that the regulations should be scrutinized as a time, place and manner restriction..

The government can impose reasonable time, place and manner limitations on expressive conduct as long as the regulations are (1) content-neutral; (2) narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest; and (3) leave open ample alternative channels of communication.

The parties disagreed as to whether the regulations were drafted narrowly enough to satisfy the governmental-interest requirement.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in U.S. v. Johnson that the permit requirement provides for a “minimally intrusive system” to notify Forest Service officers of any large groups that will be using the lands.

The appeals court concluded: “Members of the Rainbow Family, like all other citizens of this country, are entitled to the fair administration of justice and to the enjoyment of their Constitutional rights, including the precious rights of free speech and association. But, like other citizens, they must comply with lawful government directives. In this case, they willfully violated neutral government regulations narrowly tailored to protect the national forest system lands for use by all.”