In the development of democracy, certain places have traditionally been used to conduct public discussion and debate. They remain important avenues of communication. The question of public forum often arises when public spaces are designated for multiple, sometimes conflicting, uses.
A public forum is public property that historically has been associated with the exercise of First Amendment rights such as pamphleteering, public debate, and picketing. The public forum category includes streets, sidewalks, town meeting halls, and parks, among other locations. Because of the historic relationship between the public forum and free expression, the government cannot ban expression in a public forum. However, a public forum may be regulated by time, place, and manner restrictions as long as they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and they leave open alternate channels of communication.
Other public property may become a designated public forum and/or a limited public forum. A designated public forum is public property that has been specifically opened by the state for expressive activity by the general public. Any restrictions on such a forum are subject to the same test as those of the public forum – they must be content-neutral, and narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest with alternate channels of communication available. An example of a designated public forum is a school used for meetings by community groups.
A limited public forum is created when public property is opened for a limited purpose. An example of a limited public forum is a meeting room on a college campus reserved for discussion of global politics for three hours a week. In that case, the school could prohibit discussion of other Topics. In a limited public forum, restrictions on speech are allowed if they are viewpoint-neutral and reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum.
These materials are not intended, and should not be used, as legal advice. They necessarily contain generalizations that are not applicable in all jurisdictions or circumstances. Moreover, court decisions may be superceded by subsequent rulings, and may be subject to alternative interpretations. Corrections, clarification, and additions are welcome. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org.