The California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an ordinance that bans Hare Krishna representatives and other solicitors from seeking donations at Los Angeles International Airport.
The high court ruled that the Hare Krishnas' free speech rights are not trampled by current city regulations, as the group has "ample alternative means of conveying its message."
"It can distribute literature and speak to willing travelers," Justice Carlos Moreno wrote in the opinion. "It can even seek financial support, as long as it does not request the immediate exchange of funds."
The ruling was welcomed by city and airport officials, who want to ban solicitors from LAX because of security and congestion concerns.
"LAX is the first and last impression that millions of airline passengers and visitors have of Los Angeles," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a written statement. "This decision helps ensure the comfort and safety of the traveling public at LAX."
But the Krishnas and other donation-seeking organizations criticized the high court for not addressing their free speech concerns and said the ruling will cut deep into their budgets.
"It's a dishonest and cowardly opinion, in my opinion, and they didn't address the issues, they didn't look at the facts," said Los Angeles attorney David Liberman, who represents the International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California (ISKCON).
"I think this court is gutless," he
Deputy City Attorney Kelly Martin, the general counselor for the LAX, called the unanimous ruling a victory for the world's seventh-busiest airport.
City lawyers will now ask a federal court to lift an injunction on a 1997 city ordinance that bans solicitors from seeking donations inside airport terminals, parking areas and along adjacent sidewalks.
Once the ordinance goes into effect, violators could face a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.
"We now know that we're clearly valid under California law," Martin said.
Airport officials have battled for decades to regulate who can collect donations at LAX. The ruling on Thursday stems from a federal lawsuit filed 13 years ago by the Krishnas, who opposed a city ordinance that banned them from receiving funds anywhere on LAX property.
ISKCON garnered some victories early in the case by arguing that the restrictions impeded their right to free speech. The group claimed that nonsecure areas, such as ticketing lobbies, should be treated as public gathering spots, the same as city streets.
The terror attacks of 9-11 changed the way airports deal with security, prompting the Los Angeles City Council to adopt another ordinance in 2002 that requires organizations to apply for permits to solicit funds. That rule also limited solicitors to areas marked with blue tape inside the terminals, or along airport sidewalks.
In 2006, a federal judge sided with the city and held that LAX is not a public forum.
The Krishnas then appealed to the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals, which asked the state Supreme Court in June 2008 to clarify whether LAX is a public forum.
Instead, the state's high court directly addressed the city ordinance, which was deemed in the 16-page opinion as a valid "restriction of free expression even if LAX is a public forum."
While the ruling bars donation-seekers from collecting money on airport property, organizations are still allowed to talk to travelers, pass out literature and provide information on how to contribute money at a later date.
The justices agreed with LAX's argument that exchanging money takes time and may cause congestion at an airport that's already hectic.
The court also expressed concern for detained airline passengers who might miss flights, along with vulnerable travelers who might be unfairly targeted.
"The aggressive solicitors in front of our terminals is one of the most consistent complaints we hear from passengers," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of LAX.
"Assuming the injunction is lifted, we will be able to much more closely regulate solicitor activities at LAX," Lindsey said. "And hopefully we will see a very near-term improvement of customer service at the airport."
Airport police chalked up 84 arrests for aggressive soliciting over the last 12 months, with many of the most egregious offenders banned from LAX.
Liberman, ISKCON's attorney, has said that very few of the complaints about solicitors involve his client.
The ISKCON representatives currently approach people outside the terminals and present them with various books about their religion. Anyone interested in taking one is asked to make a donation - a practice that will be outlawed if the injunction is lifted.
Other organizations send solicitors who dress similiarly to airport guides and provide directions to travelers arriving at the airport.
Harold Douglas, director of Stay Free Ministries in Inglewood, said his solicitors are not aggressive and that his organization legitimately assists homeless and hungry people. He said the ruling could hurt his group's efforts.
"I think God will take us to another means to maintain and help provide supplies for people and their families," Douglas said. "We can't overrule what the court says, but it's an injustice to those who have been helped by our organization and to those who volunteer their time to us."
Only five solicitors from the Los Angeles Transition Center stand in front of airport terminals at any given time and do not pose a threat to passengers, according to the agency's director, Henry Zachery.
The ruling may lead to budget cuts, affecting more than 400 people treated at the drug recovery clinic just blocks away from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"We really depend on our airport solicitors to get the money that allows us to serve other people." Zachery said. "If we can't get donations, then we don't have any other recourse and we will have to start cutting back our services."