Federal appeals court upholds National Forest Service rules on large gatherings
A federal appeals court has ruled that the First Amendment does not
exempt members of the nature-loving Rainbow Family from compliance with federal
regulations requiring large, non-commercial groups to obtain a permit before
gathering on National Forest Service land.
More than 20,000 people gathered at a free-spirited Rainbow Family
event in the Allegheny National Forest last summer to celebrate nature with
music and dance. However, no one from the group had signed the necessary
one-page form to obtain a permit.
In July 1999, three members of the group who prosecutors had labeled
as leaders — Joan H. Kalb, Garrick M. Beck and Stephen M. Sedlacko
— were issued citations for failing to obtain the permit.
In October 1999, U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill found the
defendants guilty. In June 2000, they were sentenced to three months in prison,
and two of them were directed to pay a $500 fine.
On appeal, the defendants contended that the Forest Service
regulations had violated their First Amendment rights.
They made several arguments, including contentions that the regulatory
scheme was vague, overbroad and failed to afford sufficient avenues of
communication. They also argued that the permit scheme violated the First
Amendment because the scheme granted unbridled discretion to Forest Service
officials in making licensing determinations.
On appeal, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Rainbow
Family members’ constitutional arguments in U.S. v.
Kalb. The appeals court quickly rejected the vagueness argument
in its opinion, writing that the “prohibition is clearly delineated.”
The 3rd Circuit also rejected the arguments that the regulatory scheme
was not narrowly tailored to serve the government’s interests. “The regulation
does not preclude the use of state or private property for Rainbow Family
gatherings,” the appeals court wrote in its Dec. 12 opinion. “It also does not
impinge upon the right of the Rainbow Family to meet on federal land which does
not fall within Forest Service jurisdiction or to gather in groups made up of
fewer than 75 individuals.”
The appeals court next addressed the defendants’ claim that the permit
scheme gave too much discretion to the Forest Service to chill protected speech
by groups whose political or social views are unpopular.
Citing other federal court decisions rejecting similar arguments by
the Rainbow Family, the 3rd Circuit noted that the permit scheme is not
directed at expression, but simply at regulating gatherings of large numbers of
“Groups seeking to use the national forests for traditionally
expressive purposes such as assemblies, meetings, demonstrations and parades
need not obtain special use authorization and are not subject to the terms and
conditions provision unless their numbers reach or exceed 75,” the court said.