City of Thornton backs off restrictions on free speech after ACLU raises concerns

Freedom of Expression & Religion


In May 2009, the Thornton City Council adopted a resolution significantly restricting free speech at City-sponsored events such as the annual Fourth of July celebration and fall harvest festival. In response to concerns raised by the ACLU, the City revised some of the most onerous provisions, adopted official interpretations that were more free speech-friendly than the plain language of the policy, and provided assurance that no person could be criminally prosecuted for violating the resolution.

The resolution adopted by the City Council prohibited attendees from “speaking” about “commercial interests” inside of certain City events unless that person was successful in obtaining one of a limited number of authorized booths and could pay up to $135 for the booth permit. The resolution also prohibited the distribution of literature of any kind except from an authorized booth. The City Council exempted “political candidates” from the prohibition on speech and distribution of literature, but limited candidates to distributing only business cards.

After receiving a complaint about the resolution from a concerned Thornton resident, the ACLU of Colorado contacted the Thornton City Attorney. The ACLU noted that under the plain language of the resolution, the City appeared to be banning individuals from speaking about issues inside a City Event unless that person had paid for and obtained a booth. The ACLU also questioned the City’s rationale for allowing political candidates to speak and hand out business cards, but prohibiting everyone else from doing so.

After the ACLU’s correspondence, the City Attorney responded with an interpretation of the resolution that was far more free-speech friendly than the text itself. The City Attorney stated that, notwithstanding the language of the resolution, the City did not intend to prohibit speech of any kind inside of City events. The City subsequently struck the relevant provision from the policy. Furthermore, the City Attorney stated even if the resolution was violated, “there are no criminal enforcement provisions that apply,” assuring Thornton residents that they do not risk arrest or prosecution under this confusing and ill-considered resolution should they choose to exercise their First Amendment free speech rights at a Thornton event. 


Taylor Pendergrass , ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney

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