In my previous life as a journalist, I went through a course on media law, and had plenty of practical experience in the rights and wrongs of the First Amendment. I never thought that would come in handy as a park ranger.
In the visitor center, we have a new exhibit that invites visitors to share their concerns and solutions about anthropogenic climate change. We encourage folks to write messages on laminated 3x5 index cards, which can then be hung and publicly displayed on a rack in the exhibit.
The intent, of course, is to draw out folks who talk about recycling, biking, sharing and other ways of reducing our carbon footprint - or other environmental messages.
This being the real world, however, we just as often end up with cards that say:
IMPEACH TRAITOR OBAMA
SARAH PALIN 4 PRESIDENT, DRILL BABY DRILL
GOVERNMENT INDOCTRINATION OF CHILDREN
Yes, the Tea Party folks are apparently in full-bore nutball paranoia mode when they visit Mendenhall Glacier. Science-based discussion of human effects on climate? That’s un-American! How dare we explain inconvenient truths about carbon dioxide and the Earth.
All the cards get erased eventually and recycled - otherwise, with 5,000 daily visitors, we’d have cards on every surface of the building. But every now and again, we’ll scan the cards for looney-tunes bizarrity, and selectively erase the off-topic ranting lunatic ones.
But the journalist in me started wondering about the constitutional implications of this exhibit. Isn’t it censorship for the government to selectively remove expressions of opinion in a public building?
And yet… I don’t think it is. I’m pretty sure this falls well under the “limited public forum" doctrine, and that’s the way I, personally, have been managing the exhibit. We don’t remove cards based on their viewpoint - we remove them based on their content being off-topic for the discussion being encouraged.
I would never remove a card that says “Climate change is a lie” - it addresses the subject of the exhibit. But a card that randomly attacks the president or nebulously infers some sort of unspecified conspiracy has no connection to the topic of climate change.
The necessities of confining a forum to the limited and legitimate purposes for which it was created may justify the State in reserving it for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics.
By being viewpoint-neutral, yet content-selective, the integrity of the exhibit is maintained while my free-speech-loving conscience remains clear… not to mention the visitor center keeps itself from being sued.