The Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that sharing food with the homeless in a public park by a group with a political message is considered expressive conduct and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision is the first by an appellate court on this particular issue, according to a press release issued by the attorneys for the winning litigant, the local group called Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs.
Food Not Bombs
The organization Food Not Bombs shares free vegetarian food on a weekly basis at events in Stranahan Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The group uses the service of food to communicate the message that society could end poverty as well as hunger if money and resources spent on the military were redirected elsewhere. According to the group, food is a human right. The organization sets up tables and banners during its meal distribution. It also hands out literature at its events. The logo for Food Not Bombs is a clenched fist holding a carrot.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans’ rights to freedom of speech, press, petition, and assembly. Several types of speech are protected including core political speech, expressive speech, and most types of commercial speech. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has held that freedom of expression by non-speech means is also protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In United States v. O’Brien, however, the SCOTUS noted regulating non-speech can justify limitations on speech.
The Appellate Decision
The appellate decision reverses the lower court’s ruling, which held that the shared meal was not expressive conduct and, therefore, not protected speech. On remand, the trial court now will have to determine whether or not the City of Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance restricting food-sharing in parks is a violation of the First Amendment. According to the appellate opinion written by Judge Adalberto Jordan, the treatment of the homeless population in the City of Fort Lauderdale is an issue for the local community. Judge Adalberto noted the food-sharing events “are more than a picnic in the park.” A reasonable observer, he continued, would infer a message about community and caring for all citizens.