- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A civil liberties group is threatening to sue the city of Lincoln over a policy that pushes leafleting and other public commentary outside the city’s new arena “to the very edge of public land.”

The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday it is considering a lawsuit over the policy, which was posted on the Pinnacle Bank Arena website earlier this week.

The policy comes after the arrest in March of 77-year-old Larry Ball, who had been handing out religious pamphlets outside the arena as the Nebraska Boys State Basketball Tournament was being played inside. Police say Ball ventured beyond traffic barricades despite several warnings, but Ball insists he was in a public area and was not harassing anyone.

Misdemeanor charges of trespassing and refusal to comply with police orders were dropped in late May, but city officials have threatened to file new criminal charges against Ball if he returns.

Lincoln authorities have insisted that because the arena is managed by a private agency, he was not on public property.

The arena sits on public property owned by the city of Lincoln and overseen by the West Haymarket Joint Public Agency - made up of Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, Lincoln City Councilman Doug Emery and University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare.

Beutler, Emery and Clare did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press seeking comment.

The new written policy states that public communications - such as leafleting, signature gathering and picketing - will only be allowed in the arena’s “non-public forum exterior” at the request of an arena tenant.

That non-public area outside the arena is described as all areas that extend from the arena to the public sidewalk. Maps are included that outline which areas are considered non-public, but at the site, it’s difficult to tell where the public sidewalk ends and arena property begins.

“A complicated map tries to push free speech to the very edge of public land, yet there are no clear boundaries to give the average person any advance notice of their rights,” said Joel Donahue, an attorney for the ACLU of Nebraska.

But Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick, who helped draft the policy, said he thinks the policy is fair.

“We obviously are interested in protecting people’s first amendment rights and to use some of the Haymarket space,” Kirkpatrick said. “But we also recognize that the arena has another priority, which is to provide safe and efficient access to arena events. And the arena policy, I believe, accommodates both those goals.”

ALCU Legal Director Amy Miller said the city “has failed to acknowledge the right of all residents to communicate ideas on a public sidewalk.”

“Not only are we preparing a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Ball, we are ready to take additional complaints from those who want to exercise their First Amendment rights outside of the arena,” Miller said.

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