Police in New Jersey charged six Christians yesterday for evangelizing in a public park without government permission, and for causing some hearers to be upset with their Gospel message.
Robert Parker of Millstone, New Jersey told Christian News Network that he and several Christians from Bread of Life Fellowship in Wayne were all cited on Saturday as they witnessed to passersby in Journal Square in Jersey City. He stated that Richard Corniel of Paterson, a Marine who had served in Iraq, was preaching the Gospel when he was approached by Officer Chris Baker, who immediately shut down Corniel by asserting that a permit was required for his activities. Officer Baker also reportedly informed the Christians that they were in a “private park” and that they had to leave the city-owned property.
When Parker first spoke to the police, he stated that Officer Baker demanded identification from all of the Christians under the threat of arrest. Parker said that at first he declined, but police insinuated that if they provided identification, everything would be fine. However, that did not turn out to be the case.
“He told us, ‘That will cost you $250 a piece,'” Parker recalled the officer stating. “He said, ‘Anybody who is with them gets a ticket.'”
Parker explained that the police also confiscated the mobile phone of one of the Christians who was recording the incident, contending that it was against the law for them to record police, and that the officers were taking the phone as part of an investigation.
In addition to engaging in open-air preaching and one-on-one witnessing, the Christians were also distributing Gospel literature to those inside the park. However, Jersey City police told them that they were not permitted to hand out tracts in the entire city without government permission.
“He kept asking me, ‘Do you know where you’re at? Do you know where you’re at?” Parker outlined.
When the supervising officer arrived on the scene to assess the situation, he agreed with Baker. Parker said that at this point, there were five to six law enforcement officials surrounding them.
When contacted, the Jersey City Police Department stated that because members of the public were upset with the message being proclaimed, the officers had a right to prevent potential violence. They stated that in such cases, police protocol is to disperse the crowd and silence the speaker.
However, some legal experts have noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that heckler’s vetoes — the silencing of speech based upon the reaction of the hearer — are impermissible.
In the case of Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), which involved a man who was cited for “breach of the peace” due to the reactions of those who opposed his views, the court ruled:
“Accordingly a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.”
The Christians shut down in Jersey City yesterday were issued citations that stated that they were being charged with “breach of the peace” as well. Others cited besides Parker and Corniel include Patrick Colacicco of Iselin, Alexander Solis of Plainfield and Juan Luck of Piscataway. Police also informed Luis Zapata of Palisades Park that they would send his citation in the mail.
A hearing date has been set for November 23rd at the Jersey City Municipal Court. The Christians are not allowed to return without obtaining a permit for their activities.
Editor’s Note: Those wishing to express concerns about the matter may contact Mayor Jerramiah Healy at 201-547-5200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, District Attorney Gaetano Gregory at 201-795-6400 or email email@example.com and Newark FBI Special Agent In Charge Michael Ward at 973-792-3000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org