ACLU Urges Loudoun Officials to Preserve Public Forum at County Courthouse
Usage rules adopted last year, but some are seeking elimination of forum.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Loudoun County, Virginia – The ACLU of Virginia today faxed a letter to members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors requesting that they not eliminate a public forum for temporary displays on the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg.
Two weeks ago, the Loudoun County Ground and Facility Committee asked the Board of Supervisors to remove the public forum at the courthouse, and the Board agreed to address the issue at its meeting tomorrow. Late last week, the Leesburg Town Council countered the Ground and Facility Committee by announcing its support for the public forum, which allows up to ten temporary displays at a time in a designated area of the courthouse.
The controversy over the courthouse forum began last fall when the Ground and Facility Committee voted to close the existing public forum, a move that would have prevented citizens from placing Christmas displays at the courthouse, as they have done for years. The Board of Supervisors then ordered the forum to remain open, and rules were put in place to regulate size and tenure of displays and to ensure that there would be no discrimination against displays based on their content.
According to news reports, the forum has been used regularly, but especially during the holiday season. In addition to the traditional Christmas tree and crèche, the lawn has held a Menorah, a Sikh display, display by an interfaith group, and one from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
“While the controversy here has centered on religious displays, all kinds of expression are equally welcome in a public forum, including political and social messages,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.
“We should all be supportive of preserving traditional town center public forums,” added Willis. “They are not only an important part of our cultural and political heritage, but also of our ongoing vitality as a nation. Unfortunately, you won’t find many outside of cities and older towns like Leesburg.”
A copy of Willis’s letter to the Board of Supervisors can be found online at: acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/07-19-10.pdf.
July 19, 2010
Via Facsimile (703-777-0421)
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors
P.O. Box 7000
Leesburg, Virginia 20177-7000
RE: Request to Protect Public Forum at the Loudoun County Courthouse
Dear Board of Supervisors Members:
I am writing to request that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors reject a request by the Courthouse Ground and Facilities Committee to prohibit public displays at the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg.
This is not a legal issue — you clearly have the authority to close the public forum at the Courthouse — but it is an important public policy matter that I hope you will address with an eye toward preserving the spirit of free expression that is so much a part of our nation’s heritage and continuing vitality.
Once a mainstay of every community, traditional public forums in town centers are disappearing. Largely to blame is the manner in which suburban areas have developed over the last 50 years. Traditional town centers where residents shopped, tended to public affairs and gathered for special occasions are now fragmented and geographically scattered in the suburbs.
Shopping malls and centers are the closest suburban relatives of traditional town centers, but they serve a more limited function and are privately-owned. Operators of malls typically prohibit leafleting, political campaigning and displays with social messages. Or they allow such forms of expression, but only if they support the views expressed by them. In public forums, on the contrary, the government may not discriminate based on the viewpoint of the message.
Some states have passed laws or interpreted their constitutions to extend free speech protections to private property in limited circumstances, such as sidewalks at outdoor shopping centers and central plazas at malls. In Virginia, however, the only public forums are on government-controlled property.
Our founding fathers, Congress, the courts, and most historians see the right to use public space to express social, political, religious views as the quintessential embodiment of the American spirit. The American Revolution may have been hatched in parlors and churches, but it became a movement because of postings, readings and debates in town centers across the Colonies.
I am aware that some county residents have objected to the content of the displays that have appeared at the Courthouse since the new rules were adopted. This is to be expected, but should not be feared. Supreme Court cases defining and shaping the First Amendment are filled with language recognizing the discomfort that freedom of expression can evoke, especially when unpopular or unsettling ideas are being communicated.
Without question, those who took to the streets to support abolition of slavery, the right of women to vote, and right of racial minorities to be free from discrimination created great discomfort when they first began their efforts to change the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. Without public forums, though, these important movements would have been delayed by many years.
Last December, Loudoun County public officials adopted rules for displays at the courthouse. If after eight months of usage, significant problems have emerged, we urge you not to eliminate the forum altogether but to modify the rules for usage.
Should you choose to change the rules, please do so only as necessary and in a manner that preserves the viewpoint-neutrality required by law.
I thank you for your attention.
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