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Super Bowl Censorship: Goldwater Sues City of Phoenix for Letting NFL Suppress Speech

January 11, 2023

Censored…by the NFL?

As Phoenix prepares to host Super Bowl LVII festivities next month, the city government has given the National Football League (NFL) the authority to censor signs on private property. But you shouldn’t need the NFL’s permission to communicate with the public on your own property—so this week, the Goldwater Institute filed suit on behalf of a local business owner to end this unconstitutional attack on Phoenicians’ free speech rights.

The United States Constitution and Arizona’s state constitution both guarantee individuals’ right to speak freely, without government censorship. And the government certainly cannot give private companies the power to make those decisions.

But that’s exactly what the Phoenix government is doing. The Super Bowl is being played in nearby Glendale, yet the city of Phoenix has designated a nearly two-square-mile area (virtually all of downtown Phoenix) as a “Special Promotional and Civic Event Area.” Through February 19, 2023, no resident or business in this city-imposed “clean zone” is allowed to display any temporary signage without the approval of the city and two private organizations: the NFL and the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee.

Bramley Paulin, a Phoenix resident and business owner, has suffered the chilling effects of this suppression firsthand. While Bramley would like to lease his property for temporary signage placements, businesses won’t even talk to him because they’re afraid to do anything—even on private property, in compliance with all the regular city ordinances—without the express approval of the NFL.

That’s why the Goldwater Institute filed suit against the city of Phoenix in Arizona state court this week in defense of Bramley’s rights.

“The city of Phoenix is letting the NFL decide what I can and cannot say on my own property. That’s not right,” Bramley said. “The government shouldn’t censor business owners like me, or any residents of the downtown area, when we communicate with the public—and it certainly shouldn’t let private companies decide what we can say.”

As the suit explains, the signage restrictions violate the Arizona Constitution’s free speech protections. And they flout the constitution’s due process of law guarantee by infringing on residents’ rights without providing any of the minimum procedural safeguards the constitution requires. Moreover, the restrictions violate the Arizona Constitution’s principles of separation of powers, giving two unaccountable private entities—the NFL and the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee—a blank check to wield government power against private citizens.

The Phoenix signage restrictions are just the latest instance in a disturbing, years-long nationwide trend of local governments forcing their own citizens to beg the NFL’s permission to speak freely. But Goldwater intends to stop this trend. The Phoenix City Council has already discussed this case in an Executive Session this week—and we’re hopeful that city leaders will rescind these unconstitutional restrictions.

Hosting an event like the Super Bowl is an exciting opportunity for Arizonans, but it should not come at the cost of surrendering fundamental rights. Our constitutional rights are not for sale—and in Arizona and around the country, Goldwater will never stop fighting to protect them.

You can read more about this case here.

John Thorpe is a Staff Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.



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