Montgomery County, Maryland — A Washington D.C.-area evangelist has filed a lawsuit against a Maryland county and its police department after being cited with criminal trespass for engaging in free speech activity on what he asserts is a public sidewalk.
Attorneys representing Michael Corral explain that the evangelist was reading the Bible aloud, distributing tracts and speaking with passersby about his Christian beliefs outside of a movie theater in Silver Springs, Maryland last March when he was approached by a security guard. Corral was informed by the guard that the sidewalk he was utilizing was privately-owned, and that he must discontinue his activities.
Following a brief disagreement, the two then approached a nearby police officer, who was mounted on a motorcycle, in order to obtain resolution. The officer advised Corral to move across the street to the Veteran’s Plaza area, and contended that the sidewalk adjacent to the theater was indeed private.
In response, Corral, who states that he was careful to stand out of the way so as to not block any pedestrian traffic, noted to the officer that the sidewalk was being used as a public thoroughfare, and therefore could not be considered off-limits to free expression. After discussing the matter with police for several minutes, Corral was cited with criminal trespass and ticketed. He relocated to Veteran’s Plaza as recommended, but found his attempts to engage in effective expression in the area to be futile and left.
Corral then turned to the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) for assistance.
“A city sidewalk is a quintessentially American public space,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “Montgomery County’s policy of letting a private company control the sidewalks and banning religious speech is unconstitutional.”
In April 2012, CRE sent a letter to the county in an attempt to regain Corral’s rights to share the Gospel on the sidewalk, which is located in the downtown business section of the city. However, county officials sided with the police, asserting that the sidewalk is indeed private, and therefore, it may not be utilized for expressive activity.
Subsequently, CRE decided to seek intervention in the courts. It filed a complaint this week in Maryland district court.
“The sidewalks and streets in the downtown Silver Spring project blend into other nearby public sidewalks and streets and have remained part of Silver Spring’s transportation grid,” the complaint asserts. “As such, these sidewalks and streets continue to serve as public thoroughfares.”
“Veteran’s Plaza is not a viable option for Corral’s expression. At Veteran’s Plaza, Corral misses a significant number of people that he wants to reach with his message,” it continues. “The only way Corral can reach his target audience is to position himself on the sidewalk in front of the theater.”
Attorneys for Corral are seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction against the police department and county to stop them prohibiting him from speaking on the sidewalk in the future. He has not returned to the area since the incident.
“Our hope is that the court will bring an end Montgomery County’s unconstitutional policy that enables a private entity to control the existence, content and viewpoint of expression on public sidewalks and ways in downtown Silver Spring,” Kellum said. “The policy is deeply troubling and is an affront the very notion of free speech.”