505 U.S. 123
June 19, 1992, Decided

1987 civil rights march in Forsyth County, Georgia (photo by Jeff Slate)

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, with its emotional overtones, we must decide whether the free speech guarantees of the First and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by an assembly and parade ordinance that permits a government administrator to vary the fee for assembling or parading to reflect the estimated cost of maintaining public order.


Petitioner Forsyth County is a primarily rural Georgia county approximately 30 miles northeast of Atlanta. It has had a troubled racial history. In 1912, in one month, its entire African-American population, over 1,000 citizens, was driven systematically from the county in the wake of the rape and murder of a white woman and the lynching of her accused assailant.  Seventy-five years later, in 1987, the county population remained 99% white.

Spurred by this history, Hosea Williams, an Atlanta city councilman and civil rights personality, proposed a Forsyth County "March Against Fear and Intimidation" for January 17, 1987. Approximately 90 civil rights demonstrators attempted to parade in Cumming, the county seat. The marchers were met by members of the Forsyth County Defense League (an independent affiliate of respondent, The Nationalist Movement), of the Ku Klux Klan, and other Cumming residents. In all, some 400 counterdemonstrators lined the parade route, shouting racial slurs. Eventually, the counterdemonstrators, dramatically outnumbering police officers, forced the parade to a premature halt by throwing rocks and beer bottles.

Williams planned a return march the following weekend. It developed into the largest civil rights demonstration in the South since the 1960's. On January 24, approximately 20,000 marchers joined civil rights leaders, United States Senators, Presidential candidates, and an Assistant United States Attorney General in a parade and rally. The 1,000 counterdemonstrators on the parade route were contained by more than 3,000 state and local police and National Guardsmen. Although there was sporadic rock throwing and 60 counterdemonstrators were arrested, the parade was not interrupted. The demonstration cost over $ 670,000 in police protection, of which Forsyth County apparently paid a small portion.

"As a direct result" of these two demonstrations, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners enacted Ordinance 34 on January 27, 1987. The ordinance recites that it is "to provide for the issuance of permits for parades, assemblies, demonstrations, road closings, and other uses of public property and roads by private organizations and groups of private persons for private purposes"...  Ordinance 34 was amended on June 8, 1987, to provide that every permit applicant "'shall pay in advance for such permit, for the use of the County, a sum not more than $ 1,000.00 for each day such parade, procession, or open air public meeting shall take place.'" In addition, the county administrator was empowered to "'adjust the amount to be paid in order to meet the expense incident to the administration of the Ordinance and to the maintenance of public order in the matter licensed.'"

In January 1989, respondent The Nationalist Movement proposed to demonstrate in opposition to the federal holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In Forsyth County, the Movement sought to "conduct a rally and speeches for one and a half to two hours" on the courthouse steps on a Saturday afternoon.  The county imposed a $ 100 fee. The fee did not include any calculation for expenses incurred by law enforcement authorities, but was based on 10 hours of the county administrator's time in issuing the permit. The county administrator testified that the cost of his time was deliberately undervalued and that he did not charge for the clerical support involved in processing the application.

The Movement did not pay the fee and did not hold the rally. Instead, it instituted this action on January 19, 1989, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, requesting a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction prohibiting Forsyth County from interfering with the Movement's plans....

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals concerning the constitutionality of charging a fee for a speaker in a public forum.


Respondent mounts a facial challenge to the Forsyth County ordinance. It is well established that in the area of freedom of expression an overbroad regulation may be subject to facial review and invalidation, even though its application in the case under consideration may be constitutionally unobjectionable. This exception from general standing rules is based on an appreciation that the very existence of some broadly written laws has the potential to chill the expressive activity of others not before the court.  Thus, the Court has permitted a party to challenge an ordinance under the overbreadth doctrine in cases where every application creates an impermissible risk of suppression of ideas, such as an ordinance that delegates overly broad discretion to the decisionmaker, and in cases where the ordinance sweeps too broadly, penalizing a substantial amount of speech that is constitutionally protected.

The Forsyth County ordinance requiring a permit and a fee before authorizing public speaking, parades, or assemblies in "the archetype of a traditional public forum." Although there is a "heavy presumption" against the validity of a prior restraint, the Court has recognized that government, in order to regulate competing uses of public forums, may impose a permit requirement on those wishing to hold a march, parade, or rally. Such a scheme, however, must meet certain constitutional requirements. It may not delegate overly broad licensing discretion to a government official. Further, any permit scheme controlling the time, place, and manner of speech must not be based on the content of the message, must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and must leave open ample alternatives for communication.


Respondent contends that the county ordinance is facially invalid because it does not prescribe adequate standards for the administrator to apply when he sets a permit fee. A government regulation that allows arbitrary application is "inherently inconsistent with a valid time, place, and manner regulation because such discretion has the potential for becoming a means of suppressing a particular point of view." To curtail that risk, "a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license" must contain "narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority." The reasoning is simple: If the permit scheme "involves appraisal of facts, the exercise of judgment, and the formation of an  opinion," by the licensing authority, "the danger of censorship and of abridgment of our precious First Amendment freedoms is too great" to be permitted.

In evaluating respondent's facial challenge, we must consider the county's authoritative constructions of the ordinance, including its own implementation and interpretation of it. The ordinance can apply to any activity on public property -- from parades, to street corner speeches, to bike races -- and the fee assessed may reflect the county's police and administrative costs. Whether or not, in any given instance, the fee would include any or all of the county's administrative and security expenses is decided by the county administrator.

In this case, according to testimony at the District Court hearing, the administrator based the fee on his own judgment of what would be reasonable. Although the county paid for clerical support and staff as an "expense incident to the administration" of the permit, the administrator testified that he chose in this instance not to include that expense in the fee. The administrator also attested that he had deliberately kept the fee low by undervaluing the cost of the time he spent processing the application. Even if he had spent more time on the project, he claimed, he would not have charged more. He further testified that, in this instance, he chose not to include any charge for expected security expense.

The administrator also explained that the county had imposed a fee pursuant to a permit on two prior occasions. The year before, the administrator had assessed a fee of $ 100 for a permit for the Movement. The administrator testified that he charged the same fee the following year (the year in question here), although he did not state that the Movement was seeking the same use of county property or that it required the same amount of administrative time to process. The administrator also once charged bike-race organizers $ 25 to hold a race on county roads, but he did not explain why processing a bike-race permit demanded less administrative time than processing a parade permit or why he had chosen to assess $ 25 in that instance. At oral argument in this Court, counsel for Forsyth County stated that the administrator had levied a $ 5 fee on the Girl Scouts for an activity on county property.  Finally, the administrator testified that in other cases the county required neither a permit nor a fee for activities in other county facilities or on county land.

Based on the county's implementation and construction of the ordinance, it simply cannot be said that there are any "narrowly drawn, reasonable and definite standards,"  guiding the hand of the Forsyth County administrator. The decision how much to charge for police protection or administrative time -- or even whether to charge at all -- is left to the whim of the administrator. There are no articulated standards either in the ordinance or in the county's established practice. The administrator is not required to rely on any objective factors. He need not provide any explanation for his decision, and that decision is unreviewable. Nothing in the law or its application prevents the official from encouraging some views and discouraging others through the arbitrary application of fees. The First Amendment prohibits the vesting of such unbridled discretion in a government official.


The Forsyth County ordinance contains more than the possibility of censorship through uncontrolled discretion. As construed by the county, the ordinance often requires that the fee be based on the content of the speech.

The county envisions that the administrator, in appropriate instances, will assess a fee to cover "the cost of necessary and reasonable protection of persons participating in or observing said . . . activity."  In order to assess accurately the cost of security for parade participants, the administrator "'must necessarily examine the content of the message that is conveyed,'" estimate the response of others to that content, and judge the number of police necessary to meet that response. The fee assessed will depend on the administrator's measure of the amount of hostility likely to be created by the speech based on its content. Those wishing to express views unpopular with bottle throwers, for example, may have to pay more for their permit.

Although petitioner agrees that the cost of policing relates to content, it contends that the ordinance is content neutral because it is aimed only at a secondary effect -- the cost of maintaining public order. It is clear, however, that, in this case, it cannot be said that the fee's justification "'has nothing to do with content.'"

The costs to which petitioner refers are those associated with the public's reaction to the speech. Listeners' reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.  Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob....


****In Cox v. New Hampshire (1941) we confronted a state statute which required payment of a license fee of up to $ 300 to local governments for the right to parade in the public streets. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire had construed the provision as requiring that the amount of the fee be adjusted based on the size of the parade, as the fee "for a circus parade or a celebration procession of length, each drawing crowds of observers, would take into account the greater public expense of policing the spectacle, compared with the slight expense of a less expansive and attractive parade or procession." Under the state court's construction, the fee provision was "not a revenue tax, but one to meet the expense incident to the administration of the Act and to the maintenance of public order in the matter licensed." This Court, in a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Hughes, upheld the statute, saying: "There is nothing contrary to the Constitution in the charge of a fee limited to the purpose stated."

Two years later, in Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943), this Court confronted a municipal ordinance that required payment of a flat license fee for the privilege of canvassing door-to-door to sell one's wares. Pursuant to that ordinance, the city had levied the flat fee on a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who sought to distribute religious literature door-to-door for a small price. The Court held that the flat license tax, as applied against the hand distribution of religious tracts, was unconstitutional on the ground that it was "a flat tax imposed on the exercise of a privilege granted by the Bill of Rights." In making this ruling, the Court distinguished Cox by stating that "the fee is not a nominal one, imposed as a regulatory measure and calculated to defray the expense of protecting those on the streets and at home against the abuses of solicitors."

The situations in Cox and Murdock were clearly different; the first involved a sliding fee to account for administrative and security costs incurred as a result of a parade on public property, while the second involved a flat tax on protected religious expression. I believe that the decision in Cox squarely controls the disposition of the question presented in this case, and I therefore would explicitly hold that the Constitution does not limit a parade license fee to a nominal amount.

Instead of deciding the particular question on which we granted certiorari, the Court concludes that the county ordinance is facially unconstitutional because it places too much discretion in the hands of the county administrator and forces parade participants to pay for the cost of controlling those who might oppose their speech. But, because the lower courts did not pass on these issues, the Court is forced to rely on its own interpretation of the ordinance in making these rulings. The Court unnecessarily reaches out to interpret the ordinance on its own at this stage, even though there are no lower court factual findings on the scope or administration of the ordinance. Because there are no such factual findings, I would not decide at this point whether the ordinance fails for lack of adequate standards to guide discretion or for incorporation of a "heckler's veto," but would instead remand the case to the lower courts to initially consider these issues.....

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