Tennessee Court of Appeals Strikes Down Demonstration Permit Requirement

A Tennessee Court of Appeals has struck down an ordinance that required demonstrators to first obtain a permit before engaging in expressive activity.

The court ruled in the case of City of Maryville v. Wallace Scott Langford, which involved a street preacher who was charged with violating the city statute in 2008 when he and two others held signs and traversed a busy intersection without advance permission. His conviction was upheld until last month when the Court of Appeals vacated the sentence.

The court provided two reasons for striking down the ordinance, which stated that is was “unlawful for any club, organization or similar group to hold any meeting, parade, demonstration or exhibition on public streets without some responsible representative first securing a permit.”

“There are two overarching tailoring flaws in the ordinance — the lack of a small group exception and excessive discretion afforded to the issuer of the permit,” wrote Judge D. Michael Swinney in the 15-page opinion.

The city had argued that the ordinance was necessary in keeping proper order on the streets, and that the safety of its citizens was a legitimate concern. It also contended that the $50 fine for violating the ordinance was small, and was not overly burdensome upon residents.

“There is no economic sliding scale for the right to engage in constitutionally protected activities,” Swinney continued. “The richest and poorest among us, as well as those individuals in-between, all have the same rights under the Constitution. We hold that, as the ordinance could apply to virtually any pair or group of people engaged in a common activity, the ordinance is overly broad.”

Federal courts across the country have consistently ruled that permit requirements for small group gatherings in traditional public places are unconstitutional.

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