Michael Marcavage of Repent America and Mike Stockwell of Cross Country Evangelism had been prohibited from distributing Gospel literature without advance government permission and were barred from preaching with the aid of amplification when they attempted to engage in evangelistic activity in the city last month. After thoroughly exhausting all means to regain their rights, they asked the courts to intervene in the matter.
In the first phase of the civil challenge, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence E. Kahn released an order yesterday granting the evangelists temporary relief, noting that “Plaintiffs’ success on the merits of their First Amendment claims appears likely” and that the unlawful actions of the Syracuse Police Department warranted an immediate restraining order.
The suit follows an incident that began on April 9th when evangelist Mike Stockwell was threatened by police for engaging in amplified free speech activity near the Centro bus hub in downtown Syracuse.
Two days later, as Marcavage sought to minister with Stockwell on the streets of Syracuse, he reviewed the city’s “sound reproduction” ordinance and called the police department for clarification. Over a course of three days, while law enforcement adamantly insisted that a permit was required, none of the officers knew how to apply for one. On the third day, Sergeant Michael Long advised Marcavage that the ordinance completely prohibited amplified free speech activity as it is always deemed “unnecessary,” even when used to be heard in Syracuse’s noisy downtown bustling environment. Long stated that he could not give Marcavage permission to engage in his activities, “just like if you called me and asked me to give you a permit to smoke marijuana on the street corner.”
Additionally, Marcavage was informed that the Municipal Code prohibited him from distributing religious literature without a permit, which takes at least a week to be processed. Long threatened Marcavage that he would be arrested if he distributed literature without prior permission from the city.
In the civil lawsuit filed by Marcavage and Stockwell on May 3rd, the evangelists asked the court to restrain the city from enforcing the cited ordinances, which they believe to be “Orwellian.” In order to be granted the temporary restraining order, the evangelists needed to demonstrate that they were suffering from the city’s actions and policies, that they had a likelihood of winning the case when it is ultimately decided, and that their case served the public interest.
“Defendants are not entitled to construct an inescapable legal dragnet that encompasses a broad universe of other speech,” Judge Kahn stated in his order filed yesterday. “That amplified sound may … be regulated … does not mean that a police officer may be given free reign to incarcerate individuals engaging in amplified speech if the officer finds the speech – in his own estimation – to be ‘unnecessary,'” he added.
Regarding the city’s permit requirement pertaining to the distribution of Gospel literature, Kahn declared, “Defendant Long’s declarations of official policy suggest that Plaintiffs have a strong case that the Bill and Sampling Ordinances as applied were unconstitutional. … Defendant City’s policy on leafleting in public places appears incompatible with longstanding First Amendment precedent. ‘For over 50 years, the Court has invalidated restrictions on door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering.'”
Marcavage and Stockwell are thankful that the temporary restraining order was granted, but say that an effort still exists in challenging the ordinances, as well as the officers’ unlawful restraints on their free speech rights.
“Our only goal is to freely spread the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ without police interference and harassment,” Marcavage stated. “Despite our exhaustive efforts to regain our rights to be heard and to hand out Gospel tracts in the city, law enforcement opted to ignore and trample our freedoms,” he added. “Police are not a law unto themselves, and in this case, the Syracuse Police Department had violated years of Supreme Court precedent. The word of God declares that those in civil government are to be ministers of God for good, not become bullies with badges,” Marcavage concluded.
Judge Kahn has set a hearing date for May 29th, in which the city must provide reason as to why a preliminary injunction should not be granted.