File Under 'Florida': No Constitutional Right to Sing in a Post Office
The First Amendment gives you a lot of rights, but among them you won't find "singing" -- at least not in a post office. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week affirmed the dismissal of a claim brought by Eric Watkins, who was kicked out of a U.S. Post Office when he refused to stop singing an "antigay" song.
As the Hare Krishnas found out the hard way, not all government property is open for all speech activity, all the time.
Florida Man Walks Into Post Office ...
All Eric Watkins wanted was to buy a post office box at a post office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While waiting in line, he sang "an antigay song by superstar Reggea [sic] artist Buju Banton." (We checked, and it turns out that Buju Banton is, in fact, a four-time Grammy nominee, though he's been in federal prison for cocaine trafficking since 2011.) While we don't know what the song was, it could have been "Boom Boom Bye," written by Banton in 1988, which is part of a genre of Jamaican music ("murder music") that encourages killing gay people.
Watkins got to the front of the line and the postal employee, Jackie White, asked him to stop singing. He refused, and the employee told him to stop singing or she would call the police. He claimed he was entitled to $50,000 in damages for a violation of his First Amendment rights. In his complaint, he alleged that his singing was protected and that there was no sign in the post office prohibiting singing.
This Is a Post Office, Not Broadway
That might be true, said the Eleventh Circuit in an unpublished opinion, but not all government-owned property has been opened up to the public for speech activities. A post office is a prime example of one of those places. This finding alone meant that the court didn't have to determine whether Watkins' singing really was constitutionally protected.
The only thing that mattered was whether White's actions were reasonable in light of the purpose of the space. Regardless of the contents of Watkins' singing, "singing aloud disrupts the normal activity of the post office," the court said.
And if that weren't enough, White is entitled to qualified immunity, too: "Refusing service to a disruptive customer does not violate any clearly established and obvious federal law; nor were White's actions so clearly violative of the Constitution that White had to know that her response was impermissible regardless of prior case law," the court said.
And, just to make the opinion slightly more entertaining, the panel added, "In sum, while singing in the rain may result in a glorious feeling, singing in the post office is not a constitutional right."
Maybe Watkins should stick to Wyclef Jean and Bob Marley, instead.
- Specialty License Plates: The First Amendment and the Intersection of Government Speech and Public Forum Doctrines (UCLA Law Review)
- Court Looks for Limits in Confederate Flag License Plate Case (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- A Look At Religious Freedom Laws in Ala., Ga., and Fla.
- 9th Cir. Breaks With Others, Allows Ban in Anti-Israel Ad Case (FindLaw's U.S. Ninth Circuit Blog)
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