Pleasant Grove City v. Summum
Bill Long 11/2/08
Docket No. 07-665; Oral Argument Nov. 12, 2008
This is a fairly straightforward First Amendment free speech case. Summum, if you didn't know (which I didn't, before I began to read the case), is a Utah-based philosophy anchored in its Seven Summum Principles. Though proponents claim that their philosophy/religion is ancient, most who have studied it say that it emerged in the mid-1970s through an encounter with the "Summa Individuals" by Claude "Corky" Nowell. I will get to the principles of Summum below, but you should know here that proponents of this belief system petitioned the City of Pleasant Grove to allow it to place a monument containing its Seven Principles in Pioneer Park, a city-owned and operated park. The justification for this request emerged from the fact that Pleasant Grove City already has a Ten Commandments display (given by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971). The park also has the following historical monuments in it:
Old Bell School (oldest known school building in Utah)
• First City Hall (original Pleasant Grove Town Hall)
• Pioneer Winter Corral (historic winter sheepfold)
• First Fire Station (facade of city's first fire station with plaque)
• Nauvoo Temple Stone (artifact from Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois)
• Pioneer Log Cabin (replica, built in 1930)
• Pioneer Water Well (donated by Lions Club in 1946)
• Pioneer Granary (built in 1874, donated by Nelson family)
• September 11 Monument (project of local Boy Scouts)
• Pioneer Flour Mill Stone (used in first flour mill in town, donated by Joe Davis)
Summum argued, actually following legal precedent from the Tenth Circuit (where Utah is located), that the donation of monuments to a municipality constitutes not simply a gift to the city but also preserves the private speech of the donating entity. Thus, Summum argued, the Sept. 11 Monument, for example, really was not an expression of "government speech," but was still "private speech," which was simply adopted by or accepted as a gift by the government. Thus, since the city accepted one expression of speech, it created a public forum for speech, and thus Summum should be allowed to donate its monument and have the city display it.
Summum's Seven Principles
Just so that you won't be ignorant of what these principles are, I will give them to you here. They are, in my judgment, a form of religious expression similar to gnosticism, if by that term you understand it to be a deeper knowledge of the divine or the universe not accessible to those who are only alert to the surface or plain meaning of things. The Summum web page, for example, constrasts the basic level of instruction in religion (represented by the 10 Commandments given to Moses) with the higher level of insight provided by the Seven Principles. This is a classic "gnosticism-type" argument.
I. The Principle of Psychokinesis--"SUMMUM is MIND, thought; the universe is a mental creation."
II. The Principle of Correspondence--"As above, so below; as below, so above."
III. The Principle of Vibration--"Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates."
IV. The Principle of Opposition--"Everything is dual; everything has an opposing point; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes bond; all truths are but partial truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled."
V. The Principle of Rhythm--"Everything flows out and in; everything has its season; all things rise and fall; the pendulum swing expresses itself in everything; the measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left; rhythm compensates."
VI. The Principle of Cause and Effect--"Every cause has its effect; every effect has its cause; everything happens according to Law; Chance is just a name for Law not recognized; there are many fields of causation, but nothing escapes the Law of Destiny."
VII. The Principle of Gender--"Gender is in everything; everything has its masculine and feminine principles; Gender manifests on all levels."
The Legal Issue Before the Court
As mentioned above, the Tenth Circuit has a case which suggests that in a scenario contemplated in this case (where Summum donates a monument with its principles), the city must accept it and display it along with other such statements of belief (such as the Ten Commandments). Indeed, a panel the Tenth Circuit upheld Summum's right in this case to have their principles so placed. The motion for rehearing en banc lost by a 6-6 vote. Those judges disagreeing with the panel decision who wrote in the 6-6 vote explained that their basic point was once a monument was donated to the city, it not only becomes city property but the message becomes government and not individual or private speech. Thus, the government reasonably can control which messages it wants to see in its parks. In this case the government had developed two criteria: historical significance and placement by a civic group of long-standing importance to the area. Summum failed both tests.
So the US Supreme Court will be asked to define the nature of a gift of a monument such as this to a municipality. Does it become government speech? And, if so, what are the criteria that government should or may use in order to control the proliferation of monuments, so that public parks aren't reduced to "clutter"? I would think that the Supremes would overturn the Tenth Circuit here, though the idea of leaving discretion for sorting through which messages are "proclaimed" on public property does seem to be a bit too much for small town bureaucrats...