The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors delayed, but did not reject, a proposal to declare the county courthouse and its grounds a “nonpublic forum.”
The courthouse was established for public business, and the building and its grounds are owned by the public. If that isn’t a public forum, then what is?
The answer is all bound up in legalese.
County Attorney Greg Kamptner said at a recent board meeting that courts have consistently ruled that “courthouse grounds are not … referred to as traditional public forums” for First Amendment purposes.
And apparently, if a public area hasn’t been used as a public forum in the past, it can be restricted as a public forum in the future.
Courts may be able to parse that conclusion from legal minutiae, but to most of us the public courthouse is the public courthouse. And from that fundamental fact comes the corollary that the public has a right to gather on the grounds, as long as that’s in a safe, respectful manner. After all, as the public we own the property.
A proposed county policy, however, would assume that we have ill intent and pre-emptively prevent us from freely accessing the grounds.
What’s more, the policy further moves us into an Orwellian future in which freedom of speech isn’t actually free — it’s declared off limits in some places and corralled into tiny “free-speech zones” in other places so that officials can control what we say and where we say it.
This is not the vision of liberty that our Founders bequeathed us.
Under the proposed rules, the property would be allowed to be used only by people who are conducting court business; by people who are actively traveling from one public sidewalk abutting the grounds to another; and for specified activities such as candidacy announcements, administering of oaths for public office, and participation in history tours or a class operated or sponsored by the state, Albemarle, Charlottesville, any school or any county or city historical society or organization. Other activities would need prior consent of the court.
Note that our elected officials say that candidacy announcements and oaths of office are fine on courthouse grounds; those activities benefit them.
Note, too, that only official history tours or classes would be permitted. So you’d be breaking the law if you simply wanted to bring your child onto the property to see the historic courthouse frequented by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe (the rear wing was the courthouse as of 1803, before additions were made).
Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, by the way, would be appalled at these proposed restrictions — which follow similar limits placed on the grounds of the Albemarle County Office Building.
Keeping the building and grounds safe and secure is of course a legitimate concern.
But banning the public from the public’s own property is a dangerous precedent, and inimical to the very values our nation claims to revere.
It’s especially abhorrent at a site connected with three presidents who argued and fought for liberty.
The restrictions should be rejected.