Street preachers are turning to courts in defense of their First Amendment rights.
The Oregon Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Eugene, Ore., police wrongly used a disorderly conduct ordinance two years ago to suppress the free speech rights of street preacher Daniel John Lee, according to the Register-Guard in Eugene. Police did not have the right to arrest Lee even though he was provoking passers-by with inflammatory words, the court said.
A law enforcement officer saw Lee in a downtown mall in 1999 pounding on a Bible and making loud references to “drunkards” and “whoremongers.” The officer arrested Lee because he believed the preacher violated the city ordinance’s ban on fighting or “violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior.”
But the appeals court reversed the conviction, saying Lee didn’t violate the city’s statute, according to the Register-Guard.
“Street preaching that induces some people in a busy public walkway to stop and listen while others may pass unimpeded is expressive activity that is protected” by the state constitution, the court said.
“I am pleased that the Court of Appeals agreed with my position that street preaching in a public forum is clearly protected speech under the Oregon and federal constitution,” said Lee in a statement through his lawyer.
Last year, a Philadelphia policeman asked street preacher William Romansky to move from a busy sidewalk to an empty area, read an article on the Freedom Forum Web site, www.freedomforum.org.
When Romansky refused to move, the policeman asked if he had a preaching permit. Romansky said he did, referring to his pocketsize copy of the U.S. Constitution. The officer then arrested the preacher, handcuffed him and kept him in the back seat of the police car until Romansky signed a disorderly conduct citation.
During a five-minute Philadelphia Municipal Court hearing last October, Judge Craig M. Washington dismissed the case, saying that Romansky’s actions were clearly protected by the First Amendment.
In another case, a group of four self-described Christian street preachers sued an Oregon city mayor and several police officers last year for allegedly hampering their preaching in certain public squares, the Freedom Forum reported.
Portland attorney Spencer Neal argued that the police ordered all four of the men, including Lee, to stop preaching at various occasions. Some were arrested for refusing, according to the Freedom Forum article.
Portland ordinances on public speech have been challenged before. In 1995, U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty ruled that a speech law for Pioneer Courthouse Square was unconstitutional. The law required listeners to be in the immediate vicinity of the speaker in order to protect the public area from “excessive noise.” Preacher Ron Rohman sued the city for limiting his need “to spread the Gospel,” and won.
According to the Freedom Forum article, Haggerty ruled that Rohman’s “preaching of the Gospel is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment,” and that the city’s reasons to limit preaching in the public square were spurious.
Alex Smirnov is BCE’s research associate.