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NFL, Phoenix attempt to squash free speech during Super Bowl

A “Clean Zone” law implemented by Phoenix which gave the city and the NFL the ability to censor speech near State Farm stadium has been found unconstitutional.

It’s a tale of two cities in downtown Phoenix, set to play host to the national media and all the associated fanfare in the lead-up to Super Bowl LVII.

Or rather, it’s a tale of where one city government’s priorities lie, brought to light by two lawsuits challenging the city’s willingness to trample on its residents’ rights. Government officials can’t be bothered to police violent crime in one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. But they have more than enough time and resources to police their own citizens’ free speech ahead of the Super Bowl.

In a massive swath of downtown Phoenix known as “The Zone,” the crisis is spiraling out of control as lawlessness, violence, and death become regular occurrences. And that’s to say nothing of the used condoms, needles, and human waste littering the streets. Just how bad is it?

Local business and property owners sick of watching their livelihoods be destroyed are now suing the city for maintaining a public nuisance. (The Goldwater Institute, where I work, has filed a brief in support of these citizens’ rights.) Officials spent years shunting homeless people into The Zone, and now they’re refusing to effectively patrol the area, reportedly instructing police officers to take no action to enforce the law. And while the city received nearly $100 million in federal COVID relief funds since 2021 to address the homelessness crisis, it had spent less than 10 percent of that windfall as of late last year.

City leaders are unwilling to protect the public’s health and safety, those same leaders were champing at the bit to cater to the whims of the National Football League—even if it meant censoring their own citizens in the weeks surrounding the Super Bowl.

The city said no resident or business in the “clean zone,” which encompasses most of downtown Phoenix, could put up any temporary signs—including flags, banners, posters, flyers or even window paintings—without the approval of the city, the NFL, and the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee. The mandate was ostensibly meant to ensure that only the NFL and its chosen sponsors can advertise in the “clean zone.” In practice, it meant that hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents were banned from communicating with the public on their own property without permission from the government and its handpicked private entities.

After the Goldwater Institute sued the city over these unconstitutional restrictions, the government amended the “clean zone” ordinance to remove the NFL and the Host Committee from the signage decision-making process. (And this past week, a court ruled the restrictions were unconstitutional.) But it’s all too clear what is and is not important to city leaders. After all, there are no flashy media events in The Zone. No opportunities to take credit for exaggerated economic impact projections. No national spotlight.

The city won’t enforce its laws to reduce the violence in The Zone, but it will mobilize 20 city departments to spend countless hours—all on the taxpayers’ dime—preparing for the million or so visitors expected to attend Super Bowl festivities in Phoenix. (The big game itself is being played in nearby Glendale.)

The city won’t protect business owners from the ruin caused by its own negligence in the Zone, but it will gladly censor its own citizens to protect the NFL and its sponsors from competing advertisers.

Hosting Super Bowl festivities is an exciting opportunity for Phoenix—but the whims of the city and the NFL shouldn’t come at the cost of citizens’ constitutional rights. Nor should innocent residents and business owners in The Zone forfeit their rights because the city doesn’t want to fulfill its duty and enforce the law.

It’s time for the Phoenix government to get its priorities in order—that’s what all its citizens deserve.

Joe Setyon is the Communications Manager at the Goldwater Institute.


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