As parades roll through New Orleans and other cities that celebrate Mardi Gras today, many of the floats will be skewering politicians, dysfunctional public entities, professional athletes, and nearly any other public figure that features in modern life. 

One could wonder why the krewes that organize the parades would be so openly hostile to the local officials who control parade permits, when those permits are central to the organizations’ existence.  Fortunately, courts have long upheld the First Amendment rights of individuals and membership organizations to express even extremely offensive messages. Any public officials that revoked a parade permit based on the messages expressed by the applicant would find themselves in an expensive court case they are almost sure to lose. Carnival season thus offers an occasion for creativity not only in unique costuming but also in speech before the hundreds of thousands of people who congregate each year.

Consider, for example, a float covered with pictures of the members of the New Orleans City Council as a literal and figurative “bunch of boobs” while calling out their mishandling of the Sewage and Water Board and oversight of a deeply unpopular mayor. Or, the float depicting Mayor LaToya Cantrell half-naked in a toilet, surrounded by references to her various public scandals, with the moniker “LaToyalet.”

Regardless of how crude and offensive these images and views might be to the subjects (or anyone else), the Supreme Court has consistently protected free speech rights in the context of parades and marches. The Court has done so where the messages are far more unpopular or hateful, including marches supporting desegregation in the 1960s and by neo-Nazis. The right to express even deeply offensive views is not restricted just because a listener might feel offended by those views, and these rights extend to the organizers’ selection of its members.

Carnival parades also provide an example of the principle that just because you have a right to speak doesn’t mean you can force anyone to listen. This year, for example, there were reports that a parade route typically lined with tens of thousands of people any other day of Carnival season was nearly empty for a parade in which the captain has been accused of fraud, racial insensitivity, and insensitivity to the death of a paradegoer crushed by one of the krewe’s floats. Not only was the audience extremely sparse, but the participation of marching bands reportedly fell below the number required by law to obtain a parade permit.

If a parade falls short of the content-neutral standards set for all permit holders, the City is in a far stronger position to “nix” the organizers’ permit than any ill will felt toward the organizers or their views. Such restrictions on when, where, and how expressive activity may occur are permissible as necessary to further the government’s interest, so long as they are not applied in a discriminatory fashion to disadvantage any disfavored ideas or speakers. Such restrictions might prohibit protests in parks or neighborhoods to certain hours to avoid disruption to commuters or those sleeping.

Without such limitations, everyday citizens would be severely hampered as they go about their daily lives. Most recently, for example, pro-Hamas supporters illegally blocked traffic on roads in several cities and caused considerable inconvenience to thousands.

Few experiences offer an opportunity for citizens to criticize public officials to an audience the size of Carnival crowds in New Orleans. This Mardi Gras offers an occasion to remember how the First Amendment makes this possible without giving speakers the power to interrupt our daily lives.

Anna St. John is the president and general counsel of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute and a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Law Center (