The First Amendment protects the right of protestors to stand outside public buildings where meetings are being held, so that they can communicate with participants as they enter and exit meetings. However, when meetings are held on private property, the owner of the property may choose not to give protestors access to meeting participants.
The ACLU is representing the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, a grassroots organization that promotes pedestrian-friendly community development in Northern Virginia . According to representatives of the anti-sprawl group, VDOT meetings are usually held on public property. However, at a VDOT meeting held at the Tysons Westpark Hotel two years ago, members of the group were not permitted to distribute flyers or collect signatures.
"The government should not be able to duck protestors by holding their meetings in privately-owned buildings," said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. "We hope VDOT will see to it that protestors have a place where they can hand out leaflets, collect signatures from meeting participants, and hold signs."
The ACLU maintains that there are several acceptable ways to guarantee the First Amendment rights of protestors. VDOT can convince the hotels to give protestors reasonable access to hotel entrances. VDOT can give protestors direct access the space they have rented from the hotel. Or, the meetings can be moved to a public place.
The VDOT meetings are scheduled for Many 28, 29, 30 at the Springfield Hilton, Tysons Westpark Hotel, and the Fairview Marriott respectively. The purpose of the meetings is to review VDOT's environmental impact statement for the widening of the Capital Beltway between Heming Avenue and the American Legion Bridge .
A letter from the ACLU was delivered this morning to VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet in Richmond (by fax) and VDOT Northern Virginia District Administrator Thomas Farley (by hand), asking for assurances that the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth will have reasonable access to the meetings. The letter seeks a response from VDOT by May 7.
Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Robert Hughes, President, Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, 703-280-1719