Four Christians in Minnesota that were recently barred from evangelizing during an annual event in Duluth known as the Tour of Lights have regained their right to share the Gospel in the public park.
As previously reported, last month, Steve Jankowski and three other friends were forced to move to a “free speech zone” outside of the Tour of Lights when police saw that they were distributing tracts to passersby. Police reportedly told the men that because event organizers had obtained a permit for the lights display, which was open to the general public, the area was now considered private property.
“Sir, what we’ve got to do is ask you to go to the specific zone that’s been designated as your First Amendment zone if you want to pass stuff out,” an officer is heard explaining in video footage recorded by the men. “Right here is kind of a problem.”
Michael Winandy, one of the Christians accompanying Jankowski, then informed the officer that there was an injunction in effect against the city, which prevents them from barring speech in the park during the Tour of Lights.
“Okay, what I’m telling you is that our city attorney has given us direction that if you want to practice your First Amendment right, which is perfectly fine, that you have to be in that First Amendment zone,” the officer replied.
When asked what would happen if the men continued to distribute literature in the park, the officer explained that the Christians ran the risk of being incarcerated.
“If you didn’t leave, you’d be escorted and trespassed,” he said. “You could be cited and/or jailed for trespassing.”
The men then contacted their attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) about the matter. ADF, which had represented Jankowski the previous year, confirmed that a federal judge indeed issued a restraining order against the city, preventing them from prohibiting speech during the Tour of Lights.
“Defendants are hereby enjoined from interfering with or prohibiting Plaintiffs and other third party speakers from engaging in protected expression, in the form of peaceful distribution of literature, display of signs and engaging in dialogue, in Bayfront Festival Park during the 2011 Tour of Lights event and all other future Tour of Lights events that are governed by the Bentleyville Tour of Lights Agreement 2010-2013, or until further Order of this Court,” wrote Judge Michael J. Davis.
Following the incident last month, ADF immediately approached the courts about what they believed was a blatant infringement of the established injunction. The city claimed that the order was void because it had a new arrangement with the Tour of Lights organizers, granting exclusive use of the park.
This Wednesday, the court agreed that the restraining order had indeed been violated and that the Christians had a right to share their faith in the park.
“Because the park is a traditional public forum, and because this year’s BTL event is free and open to the public despite the fact that the 2012 Agreement grants BTLI ‘exclusive use’ of the park, the court finds that the park has retained its public character during the 2012 BTL event,” the court outlined in its new order issued this week. “The court further finds that granting exclusive use of the park to BTLI has no impact on Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”
ADF states that they are pleased with the decision.
“The government cannot ban the First Amendment in a public park just because event officials don’t like the message that a person is sharing,” said attorney Jonathan Scruggs, who is co-counsel in the case with Nate Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression. “The court has done the right thing in enforcing what the original order sought to protect: the constitutionally-protected freedom of citizens to engage in non-disruptive speech in a public place.”
Duluth’s Tour of Lights runs through December 26th.