People For the American Way

Biden Judge Rules that Hmong Group Could Properly Prevent Proselytizing in Area they Rented at State Fairgrounds

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Biden Judge Rules that Hmong Group Could Properly Prevent Proselytizing in Area they Rented at State Fairgrounds

Judge Gabriel Sanchez, nominated by President Biden to the Ninth Circuit, wrote a 2-1 decision that upheld a lower court ruling rejecting a claim by an evangelical proselytizer that he had a free speech right to proselytize  inside an enclosed state fairgrounds area rented by a Hmong group. The court did find that he could conduct his activity in an area just outside the rented space. A Trump judge partly dissented in the October 2023 decision in Camenzind v California Exposition and State Fair.


What happened in this case?

A Hmong organization near Sacramento rented an enclosed area within the California Expo and State Fairgrounds to hold a Hmong New Year festival. The festival was open to people who purchased tickets, and almost 30,000 attended over four days. Other groups held similarly ticketed events in this area.

Burt Camenzind, an Evangelical Christian, “wanted to spread the message of his faith” at the Hmong festival. He purchased a ticket and wanted to hand out coins with messages on them, some in Hmong, in order to “proselytize attendees” at the festival.

Police told Camenzind that he could hand out his coins and conduct activities in an area just outside the entry gates to the festival. He refused and insisted on proselytizing inside the festival. Police then “ejected him from the festival,” and he filed a lawsuit on free speech grounds. The district court rejected his claim, and he appealed.

How did Judge Sanchez and the Ninth Circuit Majority Rule and Why is it Important?

Judge Sanchez wrote a 2-1 opinion that upheld the lower court based on the First Amendment and the California state constitution. The majority rejected the claim that the entire fairgrounds, including the fenced-in area rented by groups during most of the year, was a traditional public forum where all free speech activity could occur.

Instead, looking at the history of the enclosed area and published guidelines, Judge Sanchez wrote that the private groups that rented it were given control of the activities in the area, which was a “nonpublic forum,” and free speech activity occurred only as permitted by the private group. Particularly in light of the free expression areas outside the fence, the court ruled that the limits were “reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner” of speech and permissible under the federal and state constitutions.  Trump judge VanDyke wanted to send the case back for further review under state law. Under both federal and state law, the majority concluded, it was “reasonable” and permissible for the fairgrounds to offer lessees like the Hmong group the “freedom to control” speech activity inside the rented area.

Judge Sanchez’s opinion is important not only to the Hmong group and others who rent the fenced-in area at the fairgrounds. It is also significant because it is an example of the rejection of far right groups’ efforts to weaponize the First Amendment and impose their views on others.  In addition, the ruling serves as another reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Sanchez to our federal courts.