Private organizations such as Citizens Defending Freedom-Nassau (CDF-Nassau) can assemble in public buildings and restrict who is allowed to attend their meetings, according to the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office and a U.S. Constitutional Law expert from the University of Florida.
“Government entities often make meeting space open to private groups but this doesn’t make those groups government actors subject to First Amendment constraints,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, Ehrlich Chair in U.S. Constitutional Law at the University of Florida Law School. “If a private organization is holding a meeting on public property, they are treated as a private group.”
The exception is if the public space is designated for government functions, such as a courtroom, or accessible to the public, such as a park.
“Streets, parks, and sidewalks are public forums open to all, and the government can designate spaces it controls as open to all,” Professor Lidsky added.
Nassau County Sheriff’s Office Captain Jeremy Carter delivered a similar message to this reporter after I (and others) received emails to not attend CDF-Nassau’s May 25 meeting at the American Beach Community Center. He said CDF-Nassau could host a private meeting and prohibit press and others from attending because they had reserved the community center, which is a building with no general public access.
Jack Knocke, CDF-Nassau executive director, had emailed me on May 24: “I see that you registered to attend the … meeting on Thursday. This is a members [sic] only event. Press is not invited. Sorry for any inconvenience.”
I have been following CDF-Nassau’s attempts to limit Fernandina Beach Pride activities, and I wanted to learn updates on this and other areas of focus listed in the meeting announcement – “recent legislation, records requests, active projects in Education, Election Integrity and Faith.”
CDF-Nassau is part of a three-state non-profit organization with a mission to “save our nation,” according to the organization’s website. With values based upon the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God as written in the Declaration of Independence,” the organization focuses on local “public and private organizations to ensure compliance with the principles of freedom and liberty, which are endowed by our Creator and guaranteed by America’s founding documents …”
When I spoke with Captain Carter, in addition to explaining why I could not attend the CDF-Nassau meeting, he said if I tried, I would be issued a trespass warning. And if I resisted, I could be arrested.
Bobby Lippelman, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, affirmed the captain’s position when I followed up with him. “What I’m saying is so clear cut, it’s 2+2, a private reservation is a private reservation,” Mr. Lippelman said.
So I did not go to the meeting, and neither did the others Mr. Knocke told not to attend. I don’t know if the sheriff was there or not. I don’t know what was discussed.
Word of the denied access soon appeared in the form of a commentary in this news outlet. The article generated more than 100 comments that spun their own versions of the event and the law, many of which were untrue, many from people who had not been part of the situation. Opinions spewed and struck and spiraled out of control, with one commenter going so far as to pose as Mr. Knocke making a satirical confession of various misdeeds (Observer editors took down the satirical comment).
I want to be clear in my response to all those voices: The freedom to assemble in private is a protected Constitutional right, one reinforced by the 1958 Supreme Court unanimous decision in NAACP vs. Alabama. In this case, the NAACP’s rights of free association were affirmed, including the right to keep its membership list private.
Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the opinion for the court: “Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association. … It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech … it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.”
So when Mr. Knocke stated in the CDF-Nassau meeting announcement — “Feel free to share this meeting information with your like-minded friends. We want everyone to enjoy the freedoms of these United States. Hostile press and disruptors are NOT welcome” — he was within his Constitutional rights.
That is the law of this nation.
Editor’s note: The Observer welcomes thoughtful commentaries when submitted. The opinions expressed in any commentary are solely those of the writer.