A U.S. District Court judge ordered the City of Denver to amend its Rule 50 protest restrictions at Denver International Airport after two people who were threatened with arrest for picketing President Donald Trump’s travel ban last month sued. Judge William Martinez at 8:05 a.m. Wednesday approved a limited preliminary injunction that went into effect immediately. It ordered Denver to speed up permitting requirements in certain circumstances to allow protests to take place one day after requesting a permit. The city currently requires protesters to apply a week in advance.
In his ruling, Martinez wrote that exceptions to the seven-day rule should be made if the protest relates to the mission of the airport and the issue is of immediate concern, such as the travel ban. The city must “make all reasonable efforts to accommodate the applicant’s preferred demonstration location, whether inside or outside of the Jeppesen Terminal, so long as the location is a place where the unticketed public is normally allowed to be,” Martinez wrote.Martinez issued the preliminary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Nazli McDonnell and Eric Verlo, who went to DIA two days after Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order that restricted the travel and immigration of people from seven Muslim-majority countries to the U.S.
“We are gratified that the judge understands the importance of the First Amendment,” said Mari Newman, a Denver civil rights attorney who represented the plaintiffs. “We’re living in a time that there is no way to anticipate anything the government will do. This acknowledges the imperative that protesters can speak immediately on issues of public concern and in a manner in which their message can be heard.”
Federal judges around the country have enjoined the president from enforcing the ban.
Martinez did not grant all of the plaintiffs’ requests. For example, the court did not order the airport to accommodate truly spontaneous demonstrations. The airport is not required to allow demonstrators to unilaterally determine the location of demonstrations and the seven-day permitting requirement was not deemed unconstitutional in all circumstances.
Martinez pointed out that there are different standards for locations that are deemed public forums and those that are not. In this case, Martinez determined that the Jeppesen Terminal is not a public forum, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The high court had ruled that airport terminals generally have not been available for speech activity. In the DIA case, Martinez wrote that plaintiffs failed to prove that the Jeppesen Terminal is a public forum. The primary purpose of the terminal is to facilitate travel and ensure the safety of travelers and therefore it is reasonable to require advanced notice when people are there for reasons other than travel or meeting travelers, he ruled.
“The need for safety hopefully needs no discussion — for decades airports and airplanes have been the specific target of terrorists,” Martinez wrote. He added that it is a formidable task to ensure safety when 55,000 people move through DIA daily. “Nonetheless, the airport’s complete lack of any formal mechanism for at least expediting the permit application process in unusual circumstances raises a substantial and serious question for this Court,” Martinez wrote. He added that in light of First Amendment interests, the Denver rule was unreasonable. The city should have an expedited process to approve protests on issues that could not have been foreseen a week in advance, he wrote.
Martinez also ordered Denver not to restrict the size of a permit applicant’s proposed signage beyond what is reasonable in maintaining normal traffic flow at DIA. The city currently limits signs to no larger than 1 foot by 1 foot. “If you can’t have a sign big enough to read free speech rights are meaningless,” Newman said.
Hundreds of protesters also went to DIA the day after Trump’s travel ban was issued. When protesters arrived at Jeppesen Terminal around 5 p.m. on Jan. 28, Denver police told them to leave because they did not have a permit. The group asked for a permit but did not make a formal application, Denver civil rights attorney David Lane said.
“These are crazy times,” Newman said. “We’re living in a time that there is no way to anticipate what the government will do."