State Supreme Court to Hear Krishna LAX Free Speech Case
BY: DENISE NIX
Jan 04, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA (DAILY BREEZE) With his navy peacoat and rolling canvas bag, Jeff Solomon looks like any other traveler on the departure deck outside LAX's Bradley International Terminal. But the only place the 59-year-old Hare Krishna is going is from person to person, offering a friendly handshake, some small talk and a colorfully illustrated Bhagavad Gita.
"A very important part of our faith is to try to share it with other people," said Solomon, who has worked at the busy airport for more than 36 years. "It's a fabulous venue," the soft-spoken Solomon said. "We have access to many people from all over the world, all here in one place."
That is why the International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California has fought so hard - and for so long - for the right to speak and solicit donations at Los Angeles International Airport.
On Wednesday, a pivotal hearing in the nonprofit organization's 12-year legal battle against the city of Los Angeles comes before the state Supreme Court in San Francisco.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asked the seven justices to decide if LAX is a public forum under the liberty of speech clause of the California Constitution - and, if so, whether a current ordinance regulating solicitors there violates that clause.
How the state's high court rules on the issue will greatly impact how the Ninth Circuit ultimately decides the case.
While the issue is an important one at LAX, the case will likely have far-reaching effects on other locations, such as entertainment and sports complexes, retail centers and even the Internet, experts say.
David Liberman, a longtime attorney for the Hare Krishnas, said the case boils down to whether or not free speech activities interfere with the facility's purpose. The state constitution is generally interpreted more broadly than the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, offering more protection to free speech, Liberman said.
However, the city, which owns and operates the airport, wants to follow the federal standard, which prohibits activities that conflict with the property's purpose.
City and airport officials declined to comment because the issue involves pending litigation.
But in a court brief supporting the city, officials from San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego argued that case law has consistently held that California's airport terminals are not a public forum.
"Airports have always been designed, constructed and operated for one purpose - to facilitate the safe and efficient transport of passengers and cargo," wrote Danny Chou, chief of complex and special litigation for the San Francisco City Attorney's Office.
"People do not go to airports to meet and talk, to socialize, to be entertained, or to spend time," Chou wrote. "Indeed, airports have never been places where people have congregated in order to communicate with each other."
"It's used for a number of purposes that have nothing to do with air travel," he said. "Just look at all the commercial amenities at the airport: state-of-the-art restaurants, stores and shops you'd find on the Third Street Promenade and at the Beverly Center."
The dispute dates back decades, but the current case was filed in 1997. The lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles was filed in response to an ordinance prohibiting soliciting and receiving funds anywhere at LAX - including terminals, sidewalks and parking garages.
ISKCON won the early rounds of the case. But while it was on appeal in 2001, the terror attacks of 9-11 unfolded and greatly changed the way airports are regulated and operated.
In December 2002, the ordinance that is at the center of the current dispute took effect.
As it stands, organizations that want to solicit at LAX can apply for a permit to do it in certain locations. The ordinance is temporary, pending the outcome of this litigation.
In 2006, a federal judge sided with the city and held that LAX is a non-public forum and the ordinance was valid.
The Ninth Circuit, dealing with the appeals from the Krishnas, asked the Supreme Court in June 2008 for clarification of the law. The arguments now focus heavily on the aftermath of 9-11. The area of the airport accessible to non-travelers is small, and airport officials argue that, for security reasons, people must move along quickly and not loiter.
"Thus, the terminals at LAX are simply conduits for shuttling people to and from their flights," Chou wrote. "They are not public forums for speech."
Liberman contends airport officials are using 9-11 as psychological warfare against free speech, without justification.
"It's just unfortunate that they would stoop to that level just to prevent people from exercising their First Amendment activities," he said. Liberman said ISKCON has repeatedly offered over the years to work with airport officials in drafting regulations that would prevent any security problems, but still allow free speech activities.
"The airport does not want to cooperate," he added.
Liberman said terrorism experts have not found any correlation between security and the activity of the Hare Krishnas. In fact, he said, out of more than 550 complaints lodged about solicitors at LAX from 2002 to 2005, only 12 involved ISKCON members.
Liberman acknowledges that there are other groups working at the airport who are not as well-behaved, and is aware that this case will apply to them as well.
"I know for a fact that they ride our coattails and they let ISKCON go to court and fight and spend all the money and do all the work and they take advantage of the situation," Liberman said.
Solomon said that he and the other Hare Krishna representatives who work at the airport, generally about two or three a day, adhere to strict, self-imposed rules. They stay outside and only approach people who seem to be hanging out, and not those waiting in line or loading and unloading from cars, he said.
On a busy day right after the Christmas weekend, nearly every traveler with whom Solomon spoke greeted him warmly, but sent him away with a shake of the head when he showed them the books of Hindu scriptures.
One man, though, was looking to snag a copy of a Bhagavad Gita for his ex-wife, and felt bad he had only $5 to offer Solomon. All the money collected at the airport goes right back to printing the books, Solomon said. Generally, he said, he walks away each day with about $100.
"Sometimes I do meet pretty receptive people," Solomon said above the din of taxis and shuttles. "It feels good to share this with someone who wants it."