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Is It Legal to Protest in Airports?

Last month, in response to President Trump's executive order on immigration, protests spontaneously broke out at many of the nation's largest international airports. Those protests subsided as opponents won injunctions in court, barring federal authorities from enforcing the order. But that doesn't mean the end.

Those court cases are still ongoing, and Trump has indicated his administration will redraft the travel ban in an attempt to make it more Constitution-friendly, which leaves open the possibility of future airport protests. Are these protests legal? And do protestors' rights differ when they're in or around airports?

Free Speech in Flight

There were several arrests at the Charlotte International Airport, and protestors at LAX negotiated an interesting deal with police: "police and demonstrators had brokered an agreement that allowed for upper and lower level roads to alternate being fully open for 30-minute periods. During each period, demonstrators could block one level for 15 minutes while the other level remained open." Meanwhile, Denver Police Commander Tony Lopez allegedly ordered protesters at Denver International Airport to "put all the signs away that have anything to do with First Amendment expression, political message. Based on legal advice we are getting at this time, from the city attorney, what's being displayed, is a violation of airport rules and regulations."

So are First Amendment rights really limited in airports? Somewhat, according to the Supreme Court. Although the case involved solicitation of money, the Court in 1992 ruled that airports are not traditional public forums, and therefore restrictions on speech only need to be "reasonable" to be legal.

Chief Justice at the time William Rehnquist reasoned that airports were designed to serve airline passengers and employees, not the community at large, and "the tradition of airport activity does not demonstrate that airports have historically been made available for speech activity." The Court also noted that airports are subject to special security considerations, an aspect that has only been heightened since 9/11.

Free Speech in Practice

So what counts as "reasonable" in terms of restricting protest speech at airports? The ACLU notes that "prohibitions and restrictions may be upheld, as long as they are objectively applied and do not favor one side of an issue over the other. The government cannot discriminate based on viewpoint, even in a non-public forum." So while airport authorities may reasonably limit the location and time of protests, as they did in Los Angeles, they can't allow some protestors while banning others based solely on their perspective.

So long as the travel ban remains a hot-button political topic, protests at airports may continue. And while those protests may include hundreds of lawyers, it doesn't hurt to check with one beforehand about your legal rights as a protestor. And if you've been arrested while protesting, an experienced attorney should be your first call.

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