What is a "Public Place" legally?

I was discussing the recent news story of a woman being kicked off a plane for breast feeding her child on the plane. The woman, according to the story, is filing a legal complaint against the airline citing in part (near as I can tell) that state law makes it legal for a woman to breast feed in public. I mentioned to my friend that, I think, an airplane is not a public place. It is a private location owned by the airline and they do not need allow breast feeding on their planes if they do not want to (nevermind for a moment whether you think they should allow it). My friend thinks that they are in effect a public place because they accept passengers. I countered that if a woman gets in my car it becomes a public place? Does accepting a paid fare make a difference?

Anyway, round and round we go so I figured I’d ask the people who know.

http://www.leg.state.vt.us/statutes/fullsection.cfm?Title=09&Chapter=139&Section=04501

Vermont Statutes Online

IANAL but I think it’s how the place is presented not if it charges a fee or not. If just any woman could’ve gotten into your car because you are a taxi then it could be argued that it’s a public place, even if it is a free taxi. If you’re not offering a ride in your car to the general public then it is not a public place.

I am not a lawyer.

But is the nationality of the airline relevant?
In other words, if you are on a US plane, does US law specifically apply?

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Certainly US law applies to a US plane in US airspace or on a runway at a US airport. Also, US law would apply to a US plane in international airspace. Once the US plane enters another jurisdiction, it gets more complicated. *E.g., * http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mlawofsea.html But that’s not the issue here (US airline, US citizen, in US territory, domestic flight). Here the issue (I’m assuming) is whether state law is preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act. http://www.astanet.com/govaffairs/docs/preemption.pdf

The limited search that I did revealed no cases directly on point, and it does not appear that the Second Circuit, in which the plane was located, has decided any ADA preemption cases.

And see, ADA Applies to Foreign-Flag Cruise Ships—In Theory | Expert Commentary | IRMI.com The US Government Prepares to Make Non-US Airlines Subject to New Rules Regarding the Transportation of Disabled Passengers

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the airplane the property of the airline and therefore not a public place at all, but private property with public access? Therefore, the airline can specify any rules they wish?

Gfactor cited the relevant Vermont law, which is about “Place of public accommodation” and not “public place”, and also defines the term. In any case, the airline cannot “specify any rules they wish”: for example, they could not have a rule that any mother breastfeeding a child would be pushed from the plane once it reached 10,000 feet.

More generally, the government can regulate conduct at “places of public accommodation” for reasons of health, welfare and public safety, among other things. Many civil rights laws fall into this category, for example those preventing discrimination based on race, religion or national origin in stores, restaurants and transportation services. The Vermont breast feeding statute is a law of this type.

The Constitution permits governments to regulate the conduct of those businesses that serve the public (i.e. places of public accommodation). There is a countervailing right of private association, which allows persons to choose with whom they may associate with in private. For instance, the government could not prohibit you from racially discriminating in whom you invite socially into your home. Likewise, if you want to form a private club, you can discriminate in membership, though if your club provides services to the public (such as offering to rent out its clubhouse for events), it may be subject to civil rights regulation of its membership.

The conflict between civil rights regulation and the right of private association was addressed by the US Supreme Court in the Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, which determined that the Boy Scouts were a private organizaion, and not a public accommodation, so that they could bar gays from joining despite New Jersey laws prohibiting public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.