Regulating the Public Square When It’s at the Library’s Front Door

Library petition table

Local governments are responsible for the operation and maintenance of public libraries but are limited by the U.S. Constitution in how much they can regulate the “public square” on community-owned properties. That was a key takeaway from a recent Lakeland City Commission discussion.

Stephanie Madden said a “citizen reached out to me” to ask if the city supports legalizing marijuana after seeing a table set up outside the Larry R. Jackson Library to solicit voters to sign a petition to get a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana on the November 2022 ballot.

“There is a lady who set up shop” by the library’s front doors with “the legalize marijuana petitions” and it “did not seem appropriate right in front of the door,” Madden said. “It makes it look like it is city sponsored because it is by the front door.”

City Attorney Palmer Davis said while there may be “some flexibility” in finding a more suitable area for such activities, public space is the public square and imposing restrictions on it could lead to potential First Amendment issues. 

In addition, he said, there may not be appropriate public square space at the library other than the roofed front door area.

Stephanie Lopez, a field marketer with Fiorella Insurance of Stuart, is the “lady who set up shop” behind a table with legalize marijuana ballot petitions and insurance signup applications outside Jackson Library. 

Stephanie Lopez and an assistant at a petition table outside the city of Lakeland’s Larry R. Jackson Library.

Lopez was collecting signatures on the day Madden raised the issue — doing brisk business, too — near the library’s entrance and was surprised to learn she was being discussed at City Hall.

“No one has ever complained or said anything like that” to me about her table being near the door, she said. “I’ve been doing this for years, here and at the library in Winter Haven. I hope they don’t ask me to move.”

But can they?

City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said staff can explore ways to regulate the public square without impeding First Amendment rights “at the pleasure of the commission.”

Madden said she supports “open expression of free speech, but not next to the door” noting “if it was religious proselyting by the door,” commissioners would be hearing a lot of complaints.

The solution, Commissioner Mike Musick said, could be as simple as “a sign that says, ‘This is a free speech zone — not city sponsored.”’

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