497 U.S. 720
June 27, 1990, Decided

JUSTICE O'CONNOR announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE SCALIA join.

We are called upon in this case to determine whether a United States Postal Service regulation that prohibits "soliciting alms and contributions" on postal premises violates the First Amendment. We hold the regulation valid as applied.


The respondents in this case, Marsha B. Kokinda and Kevin E. Pearl, were volunteers for the National Democratic Policy Committee, who set up a table on the sidewalk near the entrance of the Bowie, Maryland, Post Office to solicit contributions, sell books and subscriptions to the organization's newspaper, and distribute literature addressing a variety of political issues. The postal sidewalk provides the sole means by which customers of the post office may travel from the parking lot to the post office building and lies entirely on Postal Service property. The District Court for the District of Maryland described the layout of the post office as follows:

"The Bowie post office is a freestanding building, with its own sidewalk and parking lot. It is located on a major highway, Route 197. A sidewalk runs along the edge of the highway, separating the post office property from the street. To enter the post office, cars enter a driveway that traverses the public sidewalk and enter a parking lot that surrounds the post office building. Another sidewalk runs adjacent to the building itself, separating the parking lot from the building. Postal patrons must use the sidewalk to enter the post office. The sidewalk belongs to the post office and is used for no other purpose."
During the several hours that respondents were at the post office, postal employees received between 40 and 50 complaints regarding their presence. The record does not indicate the substance of the complaints with one exception. One individual complained "because she knew the Girl Scouts were not allowed to sell cookies on federal property."  The Bowie postmaster asked respondents to leave, which they refused to do. Postal inspectors arrested respondents, seizing their table as well as their literature and other belongings....

Respondent Kokinda was fined $ 50 and sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment; respondent Pearl was fined $ 100 and received a 30-day suspended sentence under that provision.

Respondents appealed their convictions to the District Court, asserting that application of § 232.1(h)(1) violated the First Amendment. The District Court affirmed their convictions, holding that the postal sidewalk was not a public forum and that the Postal Service's ban on solicitation is reasonable. A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed....


Solicitation is a recognized form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Under our First Amendment jurisprudence, we must determine the level of scrutiny that applies to the regulation of protected speech at issue.

The Government's ownership of property does not automatically open that property to the public. It is a long-settled principle that governmental actions are subject to a lower level of First Amendment scrutiny when "the governmental function operating . . . [is] not the power to regulate or license, as lawmaker, . . . but, rather, as proprietor, to manage [its] internal operation[s] . . . ."  That distinction was reflected in the plurality opinion in Lehman v. City of Shaker Heights (1974), which upheld a ban on political advertisements in city transit vehicles:

 "Here, we have no open spaces, no meeting hall, park, street corner, or other public thoroughfare. Instead, the city is engaged in commerce . . . . The car card space, although incidental to the provision of public transportation, is a part of the commercial venture. In much the same way that a newspaper or periodical, or even a radio or television station, need not accept every proffer of advertising from the general public, a city transit system has discretion to develop and make reasonable choices concerning the type of advertising that may be displayed in its vehicles."
The Government, even when acting in its proprietary capacity, does not enjoy absolute freedom from First Amendment constraints, as does a private business, but its action is valid in these circumstances unless it is unreasonable, or, as was said in Lehman, "arbitrary, capricious, or invidious."

Since Lehman, "the Court has adopted a forum analysis as a means of determining when the Government's interest in limiting the use of its property to its intended purpose outweighs the interest of those wishing to use the property for other purposes. Accordingly, the extent to which the Government can control access depends on the nature of the relevant forum." In Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn. (1983), the Court announced a tripartite framework for determining how First Amendment interests are to be analyzed with respect to Government property. Regulation of speech activity on governmental property that has been traditionally open to the public for expressive activity, such as public streets and parks, is examined under strict scrutiny.  Regulation of speech on property that the Government has expressly dedicated to speech activity is also examined under strict scrutiny. But regulation of speech activity where the Government has not dedicated its property to First Amendment activity is examined only for reasonableness.

Respondents contend that although the sidewalk is on Postal Service property, because it is not distinguishable from the municipal sidewalk across the parking lot from the post office's entrance, it must be a traditional public forum and therefore subject to strict scrutiny. This argument is unpersuasive. The mere physical characteristics of the property cannot dictate forum analysis. If they did, then Greer v. Spock (1976), would have been decided differently. In that case, we held that even though a military base permitted free civilian access to certain unrestricted areas, the base was a nonpublic forum. The presence of sidewalks and streets within the base did not require a finding that it was a public forum.

The postal sidewalk at issue does not have the characteristics of public sidewalks traditionally open to expressive activity. The municipal sidewalk that runs parallel to the road in this case is a public passageway. The Postal Service's sidewalk is not such a thoroughfare. Rather, it leads only from the parking area to the front door of the post office. Unlike the public street described in Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (1981), which was "continually open, often uncongested, and constituted not only a necessary conduit in the daily affairs of a locality's citizens, but also a place where people [could] enjoy the open air or the company of friends and neighbors in a relaxed environment," the postal sidewalk was constructed solely to provide for the passage of individuals engaged in postal business. The sidewalk leading to the entry of the post office is not the traditional public forum sidewalk.

Nor is the right of access under consideration in this case the quintessential public sidewalk which we addressed in Frisby v. Schultz (1988) (residential sidewalk). The postal sidewalk was constructed solely to assist postal patrons to negotiate the space between the parking lot and the front door of the post office, not to facilitate the daily commerce and life of the neighborhood or city. The dissent would designate all sidewalks open to the public as public fora. That, however, is not our settled doctrine.... The location and purpose of a publicly owned sidewalk is critical to determining whether such a sidewalk constitutes a public forum.

The dissent's attempt to distinguish Greer is also unpersuasive. The dissent finds Greer "readily distinguishable" because the sidewalk in that case "was not truly 'open' to the public."  In Greer we held that the power of the Fort's commanding officer summarily to exclude civilians from the area of his command demonstrated that "the notion that federal military reservations, like municipal streets and parks, have traditionally served as a place for free public assembly and communication of thoughts by private citizens is . . . historically and constitutionally false." It is the latter inquiry that has animated our traditional public forum analysis, and that we apply today. Postal entryways, like the walkways at issue in Greer, may be open to the public, but that fact alone does not establish that such areas must be treated as traditional public fora under the First Amendment.

The Postal Service has not expressly dedicated its sidewalks to any expressive activity. Indeed, postal property is expressly dedicated to only one means of communication: the posting of public notices on designated bulletin boards. No Postal Service regulation opens postal sidewalks to any First Amendment activity. To be sure, individuals or groups have been permitted to leaflet, speak, and picket on postal premises, but a regulation prohibiting disruption, and a practice of allowing some speech activities on postal property do not add up to the dedication of postal property to speech activities. We have held that "the government does not create a public forum by . . . permitting limited discourse, but only by intentionally opening a nontraditional forum for public discourse."  Even conceding that the forum here has been dedicated to some First Amendment uses, regulation of the reserved nonpublic uses would still require application of the reasonableness test.

Thus, the regulation at issue must be analyzed under the standards set forth for nonpublic fora: It must be reasonable and "not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker's view." Indeed, "control over access to a nonpublic forum can be based on subject matter and speaker identity so long as the distinctions drawn are reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and are  viewpoint neutral." "The Government's decision to restrict access to a nonpublic forum need only be reasonable; it need not be the most reasonable or the only reasonable limitation."


The history of regulation of solicitation in post offices demonstrates the reasonableness of the provision here at issue.... The purpose of the forum in this case is to accomplish the most efficient and effective postal delivery system....The Government asserts that it is reasonable to restrict access of postal premises to solicitation, because solicitation is inherently disruptive of the Postal Service's business. We agree. "Since the act of soliciting alms or contributions usually has as its objective an immediate act of charity, it has the potentiality for evoking highly personal and subjective reactions. Reflection usually is not encouraged, and the person solicited often must make a hasty decision whether to share his resources with an unfamiliar organization while under the eager gaze of the solicitor."

The dissent avoids determining whether the sidewalk is a public forum because it believes the regulation, does not pass muster even under the reasonableness standard applicable to nonpublic fora. In concluding that § 232.1(h) is unreasonable, the dissent relies heavily on the fact that the Service permits other types of potentially disruptive speech on a case-by-case basis. The dissent's criticism in this regard seems to be that solicitation is not receiving the same treatment by the Postal Service that other forms of speech receive. If anything, the Service's generous accommodation of some types of speech testifies to its willingness to provide as broad a forum as possible, consistent with its postal mission. The dissent would create, in the name of the First Amendment, a disincentive for the Government to dedicate its property to any speech activities at all. In the end, its approach permits it to sidestep the single issue before us: Is the Government's prohibition of solicitation on postal sidewalks unreasonable?

Whether or not the Service permits other forms of speech, which may or may not be disruptive, it is not unreasonable to prohibit solicitation on the ground that it is unquestionably a particular form of speech that is disruptive of business. Solicitation impedes the normal flow of traffic. Solicitation requires action by those who would respond: The individual solicited must decide whether or not to contribute (which itself might involve reading the solicitor's literature or hearing his pitch), and then, having decided to do so, reach for a wallet, search it for money, write a check, or produce a credit card. As residents of metropolitan areas know from daily experience, confrontation by a person asking for money disrupts passage and is more intrusive and intimidating than an encounter with a person giving out information. One need not ponder the contents of a leaflet or pamphlet in order mechanically to take it out of someone's hand, but one must listen, comprehend, decide, and act in order to respond to a solicitation.... This description of the disruption and delay caused by solicitation rings of "common-sense," which is sufficient in this Court to uphold a regulation under reasonableness review....

Clearly, the regulation does not discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint. Indeed, "nothing suggests the Postal Service intended to discourage one viewpoint and advance another . . . . By excluding all . . . groups from engaging in [solicitation] the  Postal Service is not granting to 'one side of a debatable public question . . . a monopoly in expressing its views.'"

It is clear that this regulation passes constitutional muster under the Court's usual test for reasonableness. Accordingly, we conclude that the Postal Service's regulation of solicitation is reasonable as applied.

JUSTICE KENNEDY, concurring in the judgment.

I agree that the postal regulation reviewed here does not violate the First Amendment. Because my analysis differs in essential respects from that in JUSTICE O'CONNOR's opinion, a separate statement of my views is required.

Many of those who use postal facilities do so from necessity, not choice. They must go to a post office to conduct their business and personal correspondence, carrying cash for stamps or money orders. While it is legitimate for the Postal Service to ensure convenient and unimpeded access for postal patrons, the public's use of postal property for communicative purposes means that the surrounding walkways may be an appropriate place for the exercise of vital rights of expression. As society becomes more insular in character, it becomes essential to protect public places where traditional modes of speech and forms of expression can take place. It is true that the uses of the adjacent public buildings and the needs of its patrons are an important part of a balance, but there remains a powerful argument that, because of the wide range of activities that the Government permits to take place on this postal sidewalk, it is more than a nonpublic forum.

This is so even though the Government may intend to impose some limitations on the forum's use. If our public forum jurisprudence is to retain vitality, we must recognize that certain objective characteristics of Government property and its customary use by the public may control the case. While it is proper to weigh the need to maintain the dignity and purpose of a public building, or to impose special security requirements, other factors may point to the conclusion that the Government must permit wider access to the forum than it has otherwise intended. Viewed in this light, the demand for recognition of heightened First Amendment protection has more force here than in those instances where the Government created a nontraditional forum to accommodate speech for a special purpose, as was thought true with teachers' mailboxes in Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn. (1983), or the Combined Federal Campaign in Cornelius.

It is not necessary, however, to make a precise determination whether this sidewalk and others like it are public or nonpublic forums; in my view, the postal regulation at issue meets the traditional standards we have applied to time, place, and manner restrictions of protected expression.

"Even in a public forum the government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions 'are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.'"  The regulation, in its only part challenged here, goes no further than to prohibit personal solicitations on postal property for the immediate payment of money. The regulation, as the United States concedes, expressly permits the respondents and all others to engage in political speech on topics of their choice and to distribute literature soliciting support, including money contributions, provided there is no in-person solicitation for payments on the premises.

Just as the government has a significant interest in preventing "visual blight" in its cities, City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent (1984), in "maintaining [public] parks . . . in an attractive and intact condition," Clark, and in "avoiding congestion and maintaining the orderly movement" of persons using a public forum, Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (1981), so the Government here has a significant interest in protecting the integrity of the purposes to which it has dedicated the property, that is, facilitating its customers' postal transactions. Given the Postal Service's past experience with expressive activity on its property, I cannot reject its judgment that inperson solicitation deserves different treatment from alternative forms of solicitation and expression.

The Postal Service regulation, narrow in its purpose, design, and effect, does not discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint, is narrowly drawn to serve an important governmental interest, and permits respondents to engage in a broad range of activity to express their views, including the solicitation of financial support. For these reasons, I agree with JUSTICE O'CONNOR that the Postal Service regulation is consistent with the protections of the First Amendment, and concur in the judgment of the Court.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE STEVENS join and with whom JUSTICE BLACKMUN joins as to Part I, dissenting.

Today the Court holds that a United States Postal Service regulation prohibiting persons from "soliciting alms and contributions" on postal premises does not violate the First Amendment as applied to members of a political advocacy group who solicited contributions from a sidewalk outside the entrance to a post office. A plurality finds that the sidewalk is not a public forum and that the Postal Service regulation is valid because it is "reasonable." JUSTICE KENNEDY concludes that although the sidewalk might well be a public forum, the regulation is permissible as applied because it is a content-neutral time, place, or manner restriction on protected speech.

Neither of these conclusions is justified. I think it clear that the sidewalk in question is a "public forum" and that the Postal Service regulation does not qualify as a content-neutral time, place, or manner restriction. Moreover, even if I did not regard the sidewalk in question as a public forum, I could not subscribe to the plurality's position that respondents can validly be excluded from the sidewalk, because I believe that the distinction drawn by the postal regulation between solicitation and virtually all other kinds of speech is not a reasonable one. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.



The plurality begins its analysis with the determination that the sidewalk in question is not a "public forum." Our decisions in recent years have identified three categories of forums in which expression might take place on government property: (1) traditional, "quintessential public forums" -- "places which by long tradition or by government fiat have been devoted to assembly and debate,"  such as "streets and parks"; (2) "limited-purpose" or state created semipublic forums opened "for use by the public as a place for expressive activity," such as university meeting facilities or school board meetings; and (3) nonpublic forums or public property "which is not by tradition or designation a forum for public communication."  Ironically, these public forum categories -- originally conceived of as a way of preserving First Amendment rights-- have been used in some of our recent decisions as a means of upholding restrictions on speech.  I have questioned whether public forum analysis, as the Court has employed it in recent cases, serves to obfuscate rather than clarify the issues at hand.  Indeed, the Court's contemporary use of public forum doctrine has been roundly criticized by commentators.

Today's decision confirms my doubts about the manner in which we have been using public forum analysis. Although the plurality recognizes that public sidewalks are, as a general matter, public forums, the plurality insists, with logic that is both strained and formalistic, that the specific sidewalk at issue is not a public forum. This conclusion is unsupportable. "Streets, sidewalks, and parks, are considered, without more, to be 'public forums.'" "Traditional public forum property occupies a special position in terms of First Amendment protection and will not lose its historically recognized character for the reason that it abuts government property that has been dedicated to a use other than as a forum for public expression." It is only common sense that a public sidewalk adjacent to a public building to which citizens are freely admitted is a natural location for speech to occur, whether that speech is critical of government generally, aimed at the particular governmental agency housed in the building, or focused upon issues unrelated to the government. No doctrinal pigeonholing, complex formula, or multipart test can obscure this evident conclusion.


The plurality maintains that the postal sidewalk is not a traditional public forum because it "was constructed solely to provide for the passage of individuals engaged in postal business" and "leads only from the parking area to the front door of the post office."  This reasoning is flawed.

Quintessential examples of a "public forum" are those open spaces -- streets, parks, and sidewalks -- to which the public generally has unconditional access and which "have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions." Public parks, streets, and sidewalks are public forums because open access by all members of the public is integral to their function as central gathering places and arteries of transportation. Public access is not a matter of grace by government officials but rather is inherent in the open nature of the locations. As a result, expressive activity is compatible with the normal use of a public forum and can be accommodated simply by applying the communication-neutral rules used to regulate other, non-speech-related conduct on the premises. For the most part, on streets and sidewalks, including the single-purpose sidewalk at issue here, communication between citizens can be permitted according to the principle that "one who is rightfully on a street which the state has left open to the public carries with him there as elsewhere the constitutional right to express his views in an orderly fashion."

The wooden distinctions drawn today by the plurality have no basis in our prior cases and, furthermore, are in apparent contradiction to the plurality's admission that "the mere physical characteristics of the property cannot dictate forum analysis."  It is irrelevant that the sidewalk at issue may have been constructed only to provide access to the Bowie Post Office. Public sidewalks, parks, and streets have been reserved for public use as forums for speech even though government has not constructed them for expressive purposes. Parks are usually constructed to beautify a city and to provide opportunities for recreation, rather than to afford a forum for soapbox orators or leafleteers; streets are built to facilitate transportation, not to enable protesters to conduct marches; and sidewalks are created with pedestrians in mind, not solicitors. Hence, why the sidewalk was built is not salient.

Nor is it important that the sidewalk runs only between the parking lot and post office entrance. The existence of a public forum does not turn on a particularized factual inquiry into whether a sidewalk serves one building or many or whether a street is a dead end or a major thoroughfare. In Boos v. Barry (1988), for example, JUSTICE O'CONNOR concluded that the public sidewalks within 500 feet of the embassies of the Governments of the Soviet Union and Nicaragua in Washington, D. C. are public forums without considering the factors found in today's opinion. In Frisby v. Schultz (1988), JUSTICE O'CONNOR acknowledged that "'time out of mind' public streets and sidewalks have been used for public assembly and debate, the hallmarks of a traditional public forum."  She explained that "our decisions identifying public streets and sidewalks as traditional public fora are not accidental invocations of a 'cliche' but recognition that 'wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public.' No particularized inquiry into the precise nature of a specific street is necessary; all public streets are held in the public trust and are properly considered traditional public fora."  JUSTICE O'CONNOR further wrote that "a public street does not lose its status as a traditional public forum simply because it runs through a residential neighborhood" or because it is "physical[ly] narro[w]."

The architectural idiosyncrasies of the Bowie Post Office are thus not determinative of the question whether the public area around it constitutes a public forum. Rather, that the walkway at issue is a sidewalk open and accessible to the general public is alone sufficient to identify it as a public forum. As the Court of Appeals observed: "It ill behooves us to undertake too intricate a task of designation, holding this sidewalk public and that one not . . . . Such labeling loses sight of the fact that most sidewalks are designed as outdoor public thoroughfares and that citizens should not be left to wonder at which ones they will be permitted to speak and which ones not."

The cases that formed the foundation of public forum doctrine did not engage in the type of fact-specific inquiry undertaken by the plurality today.... In Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham (1969), we did not suggest that our constitutional analysis hinged on whether the sidewalk march had occurred on Main Street or on a dead-end street leading only to a single public building....


Content-based restrictions on speech occurring in either a public forum or in a limited-purpose public forum are invalid unless they are narrowly drawn to serve a compelling interest. Government "may also enforce regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication."  I do not think the postal regulation can pass muster under either standard. Although I agree that the Government has an interest in preventing the obstruction of post office entrances and the disruption of postal functions, there is no indication that respondents interfered with postal business in any way. The Court of Appeals found:

 "The record in this case reveals no evidence of a significant government interest best served by the ban on solicitation in a public forum. There is no evidence that Kokinda and Pearl's solicitation obstructed or impeded postal customers. [Respondents] were not charged with obstructing post office entrances, disturbing postal employees in the performance of their duties, or impeding the public in the transaction of postal business. There is nothing to suggest that they harassed, threatened, or physically detained unwilling listeners."
I agree with the Court of Appeals that the postal regulation is invalid as applied in this case because it "prohibits all solicitation anywhere on postal service property. It sweeps an entire category of expressive activity off a public forum solely in the interest of administrative convenience. It does not attempt to limit nondisruptive solicitation to a time, place, and manner consistent with post office operations; and it does not require that evidence of disruption be shown."

JUSTICE KENNEDY contends that the postal regulation may be upheld as a content-neutral time, place, or manner regulation. But the regulation is not content neutral; indeed, it is tied explicitly to the content of speech. If a person on postal premises says to members of the public, "Please support my political advocacy group," he cannot be punished. If he says, "Please contribute $ 10," he is subject to criminal prosecution. His punishment depends entirely on what he says....


Some postal patrons may thank the Court for sparing them the inconvenience of having to encounter solicitors with whose views they do not agree. And postal officials can rest assured in the knowledge that they can silence an entire category of expression without having to apply the existing postal regulations governing disruptive conduct or having to craft more narrow time, place, or manner rules. Perhaps only three groups of people will be saddened by today's decision. The first includes solicitors, who, in a farce of the public forum doctrine, will henceforth be permitted at postal locations to solicit the public only from such inhospitable locations as the busy four-lane highway that runs in front of the Bowie Post Office. The next to be disappointed will be those members of the public who would prefer not to be deprived of the views of solicitors at postal locations. The last group, unfortunately, includes all of us who are conscious of the importance of the First Amendment.

I respectfully dissent.

Exploring Constitutional Conflicts