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Protected Pests

March 13, 1987

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a case that pits the Los Angeles Airport against an organization called Jews for Jesus, which wants to hand out literature to travelers as they go to and from their flights.

This ought to be an open-and-shut case on behalf of Jews for Jesus or anyone exercising his free-speech rights in a public place. The airport is the functional equivalent of a street corner, and the same rules should apply to both. As long as public access isn't blocked, there should be no question that speech is a constitutionally protected activity. People distributing literature at airports can be pests, but they have a right to be there and to do it. Being a nuisance is an insufficient ground for being barred.

In California the state Constitution has been held to allow leafleting by political groups in a privately owned shopping center, which the courts said constitutes a public thoroughfare and is therefore a public forum. A publicly owned and operated airport can hardly claim to be anything else.

Nor can the airport persuasively claim that leafleting interferes with the functioning of the facility. No one's path is blocked, no one is prevented from getting to an airplane, no one is kept from carrying out the business that brought him to the airport in the first place.

If the Supreme Court gives any weight at all to the free-speech side of this case, it must decide on behalf of Jews for Jesus. Only by completely ignoring the First Amendment interest could it hold for the airport. Under the circumstances, it's hard to see how this case got this far. Leafleting at airports or on street corners can be an annoyance, but that is sometimes the price for freedom of speech. And a small price it is.

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