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Law School Case Brief

Satawa v. Board of County Road Commissioners of Macomb County - 788 F. Supp. 2d 579 (E.D. Mich. 2011)


When public property is not characterized as a public forum, the Government may reserve the forum for its intended purposes. Restrictions on speech in nonpublic fora are valid if they are reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker's view. Restrictions on speech in nonpublic fora are reasonable when they are consistent with the Government's legitimate interest in preserving the property for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated. The Government's decision to restrict access to a nonpublic forum need only be reasonable; it need not be the most reasonable or the only reasonable limitation. Nor is there a requirement that the restriction be narrowly tailored or that the Government's interest be compelling. In fact, simple common sense is sufficient to uphold a regulation under reasonableness review.


During the 2009 Christmas Season, plaintiff John Satawa sought to obtain a permit to place a Nativity display on the median in the middle of a public road. Defendant Board of County Road Commissioners of Macomb County ("Board") denied the request. Thereafter, Satawa filed a complaint in federal district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and nominal damages predicated upon the alleged violation of his First Amendment right to free speech (Count I); violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Count II); and violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count III). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. According to Satawa, the Board's decision violated his First Amendment right to engage in private, religious expression in a traditional public forum. The Board countered that the road median was not a traditional public forum. The Board argued that, even if the median was a traditional public forum, and its decision to deny the permit did in fact regulate protected speech, its decision served a compelling state interest—the Board's statutory interest to keep public roads and rights of way reasonably safe for public vehicular traffic—and was narrowly drawn to achieve that end.


Was the Board's decision to deny Satawa's permit to erect a Nativity scene on the median of a public justified?




The court granted the Board's motion for summary judgment and denied Satawa's motion for summary judgment. The court held that the road in question was not traditional public forum; rather it was a highway median that was not a place intended to bring citizens together. According to the court, simply because the Government owned a piece of property did not mean that property was open at all times to all types of expressive activity. The State, no less than a private owner of property, had power to preserve the property under its control for the use for which it was lawfully dedicated. Even protected speech was not equally permissible in all places and at all times. Nothing in the Constitution required that Government freely grant access to all who wished to exercise their right to free speech on every type of Government property without regard to the nature of the property or to the disruption that might be caused by the speaker's activities. Assuming arguendo that the road in question was a public forum, the court averred that the Board's decision was justified even under the strict scrutiny standards applied to the regulation of speech in traditional public fora. The court found that the Board demonstrated a compelling governmental interest that was significant and legitimate to justify the decision to deny Satawa a permit to erect his Nativity display in the median.

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