Chicago alderman refuses permit for block party celebrating Spike Lee's movie 'Chiraq' because he dislikes the film's title

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Filmmaker Spike Lee speaks at a May press conference in Chicago, where he was flanked by parents holding photographs of the children they've lost to gun violence in Chicago. (Brian Jackson/Sun-Times/AP)

According to the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, St. Sabina Catholic Church on Chicago's south side had asked for a permit to hold a block party mark the end of the movie's filming. The church's pastor, Rev. Michael Pfleger (whose own foster son Jarvis Franklin had been killed in gang crossfire), worked on the film with Lee. The party was to be held on the block on where the church is located.

But Alderman David Moore said no, according to the Tribune:

Ald. David Moore, 17th, said in a news release that he turned down the request … because he "did not see how the long-term impact would be beneficial. In fact, it seemed like another veiled attempt to buy the community's support."

The film project has been controversial for months, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel coming out against the title, a slang term that compares the street violence in Chicago to that in Iraq. Ald. Will Burns, 4th, called on the state to withhold tax credits from Lee unless he changed the name.

And from the Chicago Sun-Times:

Moore said he denied the permit because of the "economic impact" the title 'Chiraq' would have on his impoverished and job-starved ward.

"We already get excuses from people who come into our community saying why they're not building. I don't want this to be another excuse," Moore said.

"Mothers who have lost their children spoke with me. They had great reservations about this title. Signing of the permit has to go through the aldermen."

If the facts are as reported, this strikes me as a First Amendment violation. A city has substantial authority to impose content-neutral conditions on parades, block parties and other events that involve the closing of city streets, because such events interfere with others' use of the street. But it certainly can't forbid a parade because it disapproves of the parade's message. Nor can it leave government officials with broad discretion to approve or disapprove of parades as they please.

Likewise, Chiscow Chicago can't provide for street closings for block parties generally—as it apparently does—but refuse permission when a city official disapproves of the party's message, or leave it to Aldermen to decide what's allowed. To quote the Supreme Court's brief summary of the law from Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992) (paragraph break added),

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" is a prior restraint on speech. 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.

That's true for racist parades, such as the one involved in Forsyth County, even when those are likely to draw violent opponents. It's similarly true for block parties with a message that the city thinks reflects badly on the community.

Thanks to David Wegener for the pointer.