One of the aspects of the Church’s recent statement to OW regarding the priesthood session that strikes me as eminently sensible is the insistence that OW not invite media on to Temple Square and confine their demonstrations to public property. It’s worth noting that the letter didn’t say that OW members could not come on to Temple Square as worshipers. It said that they couldn’t conduct a press conference in front of the Tabernacle during a General Conference session. There are three reasons that this makes good sense to me.
First, inviting television crews onto Temple Square and holding a press conference during a session of General Conference actually is inconsistent with the spirit of the event. This really isn’t a difficult call. We are not talking about wearing pants to church. (Something that I didn’t even realize was a thing until it was a thing.) We are talking about a media event. On Temple Square. In front of the Tabernacle. During a General Conference Session. The claim that this is not going to be inconsistent with an atmosphere of worship isn’t the sort of thing one can say with a straight face. I understand that one might think the cause is more important than the atmosphere of worship, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the Church to prioritize the latter over the former.
Second, allowing OW to hold a second press conference on the threshold of the Tabernacle puts the Church in the position of having to come up with criteria for which groups critical of Church doctrine and practice get to have press conference on Temple Square. In front of the Tabernacle. During a General Conference Session. One suspects that the list of groups that would love to do this gets rather lengthy. The fact that OW has members and supporters who are active members doesn’t really dispose of the issue. If anything, it makes it more acute. It puts the Church in the position of picking and choosing which critical members get the special media treat and which don’t.
Third, there is actually a legal issue involved here, albeit a somewhat attenuated one. When a property owner throws their property open to the public and fails to make attempts to control what is said on the property, it can become a public forum. If this happens, then the property owner loses the ability to exclude speakers from the property. There are two reasons this concern is attenuated in my opinion. First, as a matter of federal law these private-property-to-public-forum cases are pretty rare and the Supreme Court has backed away from some of the nutty stuff they said in the 1960s. Such cases have been more common under state law in jurisdictions like California and New Jersey where state supreme courts at times get a wild gleam in their eyes. One has a hard time imagining the Utah Supreme Court doing this. Nevertheless, the Church recently got tripped up by the public forum doctrines when it created the Main Street plaza. After the expense of that litigation and the final settlement, I get why the Church would be concerned even if they could prevail on the merits.
I understand the hurt that some OW supporters feel about being sent to the free speech zones with the anti-Mormon zealots. At the end of the day, however, the Church’s response on this issue strikes me as pretty sensible. The idea that groups critical of Church doctrine and practice don’t get to hold press conferences on Temple Square during General Conference is neither cruel nor senseless. If anything, the expectation that the Church do something else strikes me as pretty unreasonable.