Setting the Record Straight: Private Groups Can Deny Access to Meetings

By April L. Bogle

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.

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Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
10 months ago

So, an impartial reporter who is interested in transparency and accountability is considered hostile or a disruptor by Mr. Knocke.

Free Citizen
Free Citizen (@guest_70179)
10 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes


Paula Mutzel
Paula Mutzel(@paula-m)
10 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

Yes…who distinguishes and how as to whether someone is hostile or disrupting BEFORE the meeting even occurs? There must be a crystal ball involved somewhere.

taylor (@guest_70192)
10 months ago
Reply to  Paula Mutzel

History, your logic is flawed, give it a rest.

Richard Cain
Richard Cain(@richardcain)
10 months ago
Reply to  Paula Mutzel

Yes. Give it a rest. The issue isn’t even whether or not you are a disrupter or fears that you might be. READ WHAT THE AUTHORITIES SAID. If the group doesn’t want you there and you are not welcome … then stay home. You can be Susie Sweetheart but if they don’t want Susie at their meeting … you have no “constitutional right” to be there. THAT … THAT … is the issue and I’m glad they schooled all those who couldn’t figure it out for themselves.

10 months ago
Reply to  Richard Cain

I am happy to hear because I am planning a townhall to invitees only. So I shall also get an officer to stand at the door and monitor the entrance

John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_70224)
10 months ago
Reply to  Barb

Good for you.

Barb Gingher
Barb Gingher(@angeldoccie2003yahoo-com)
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard Cain

Most of us had zero desire to attend this meeting Mr. Cain. No worries

Roy Chisolm
Roy Chisolm(@hwalker00)
10 months ago
Reply to  Barb Gingher

Based on the over 100 comments, almost all condemning Jack Knocke and his organization, you all did have a desire to get offended.

bob (@guest_70178)
10 months ago


Noble Member
10 months ago

Thank you for this clear and well researched explanation. Our community needed this information.

Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery(@douglasm)
10 months ago

Thanks for writing this, April. Mike, thanks for publishing it. The commentary to the prior written article by Mike Lednovich went shockingly far off the rails in very short order.

10 months ago

Thank you

Margaret Kirkland
Margaret Kirkland(@kirkland-mrk)
10 months ago

Thank you, April, for this clarification.

Janet Michea
Janet Michea(@jmicheacomcast-net)
10 months ago

Great job of researching and reporting. Thank you, April!

Jack Knocke
Jack Knocke (@guest_70198)
10 months ago

After Lednovich’s inflammatory article that successfully stirred up more ill will in the community, I was pleased to see your well researched and accurate article.

10 months ago
Reply to  Jack Knocke

Mr. Knocke,
Mike’s article is not what stirred ill will for me. It was and is the approach you have to other Americans. Thank God my parents raised me to be kind. Compassion and kindness is the bottom line for me.

Mike Phillips
Trusted Member
Mike Phillips(@mphillips)
10 months ago

In the first place, tickets were not sold. They were issued free, nominally as a crowd control measure. In the second place, “unacceptable” attendees were notified by email, not at the door. The Observer sought the advice of a sheriff’s captain, not a deputy, about the regulations around attendance. We weren’t sure he was right and dug deeper. He was right. Our first commentary said CDF was making a big mistake by isolating itself from the community at large. That remains a valid criticism, we think, but CDF has that right. No comment on your analysis of Constitutional law and state regulations. –Mike Phillips

Alan Hopkins
Alan Hopkins (@guest_70208)
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Phillips


In one way I very much appreciate the fact that the Observer has this platform by which citizens can express their opinions. However I don’t think you should allow these opinions to be expresed anonymously. By doing so you allow misinformation and hateful personally attacks like those of this so-called guest to be spread often. I’m all for free speech even if inaccurate (like those of this guest that you have pointed point out) or even hateful. However this should not be allowed to be done anonymously. I believe we and you would be better served if you changed requirements for posting on your site to include real names of real people in our community.

I think the discussions would be more useful and with less personal attacks and ranker. We could then actually move to solving problems rather than creating divisions.

Richard Cain
Richard Cain(@richardcain)
10 months ago

Please stop. It’s over. You’re wrong. It’s been explained. Move on. If you feel this situation is a Civil Rights case that could be “easily” won … by all means get your group together and hire an attorney and sue or take it to the State. Put up or shut up as they say. It has been shown you don’t even understand the basic facts … no tickets were “sold” and disinvited guests were told ahead of time. Since you trot out FS Ch. 760 …. which has no bearing in this situation … please explain to everyone which of the specifically identified groups of people (in the statute) has been discriminated against. A major problem in this society is the plethora of people claiming victimhood in one way or the other … and proclaiming they have a “constitutional” right to this or that. And please stop hiding behind the “Guest” identifier.

Darron Ayscue
Darron Ayscue(@dcayscue)
10 months ago

“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.”

Is there any other public official you would like to insinuate was or was not in attendance? What about private citizens that you feel may or may not have been in attendance? Why do you feel the need to know what was discussed at a private event? Why do you feel it’s your business to know what a group of people do behind closed doors?

These kinds of statements are the prime example of why you are a terrible journalist. This is the why the general public can no longer trust the local media to report accurate information. This statement leads the reader to assume the sheriffs office somehow had a hand in denying you access to a private event. This article only clarifies that your main objective is to push as far as you can into the private lives of other people because you feel it’s your right. This shows your continued ignorance of the basic principles of the freedoms of this country.

You report just enough facts to spin the conspiracy theory you wish to prove. This publication continues to ignore the truth and live in the abstract. You drive your agenda and refuse to correct misinformation when you know the true facts because you wish to keep readers believing your lies.

Editor’s Note: In discussing this with Mr. Ayscue, it became apparent that he thought the sentence in question referred to THE sheriff of Nassau County, rather than what Ms. Bogle meant when she used the term as the common colloquial reference to any law enforcement officer from the sheriff’s office. We had a civil conversation, but he held onto the interpretation that fired his remarkable anger. Too bad. We think Ms. Bogle’s article was balanced and objective (as always, by the way). She even received a nice note from Jack Knocke, who generally considers the press to be hostile, praising the article as fair and balanced. — Mike Phillips