MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — A Maryland district court has ruled in favor of a Washington, D.C.-based evangelist who filed a lawsuit against a Maryland county and its police department after being cited with criminal trespass for engaging in free speech activity on a public sidewalk.
As previously reported, evangelist Michael Corral was reading the Bible aloud, distributing tracts and speaking with passersby about his Christian beliefs outside of a movie theater in Silver Springs, Maryland in March 2012 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 private, stating that owner had a right to bar Corral from engaging in religious expression on it.
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 was also barred from returning to the location for one year.
Corral relocated to Veteran’s Plaza as recommended, but found his attempts to engage in effective expression in the area to be futile and left.
The evangelist then enlisted the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) for assistance, which sent a letter to the county in an attempt to regain Corral’s rights to share the gospel on the sidewalk. However, county officials sided with the police, asserting that the sidewalk—which is located in the downtown business section of the city—is private, and therefore, it could not be utilized for expressive activity.
Subsequently, CRE decided to seek intervention in the courts, filing a complaint last March in Maryland district court. CRE states that during the course of the litigation, officials with Montgomery County conceded that Corral’s rights were violated, and agreed to pay nominal damages to the evangelist for punishing him from engaging in religious expression on the sidewalk.
On Wednesday, the court issued a judgement in favor of Corral, affirming that he had a right to engage in free speech activities on the sidewalk, which was indeed public.
“We’re thankful for this excellent result,” CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum said in a press release about the ruling. “Private entities cannot rightly control the expressive viewpoints of citizens on public sidewalks and ways in downtown Silver Spring.”
“As the court affirmed, this practice is unconstitutional,” he continued. “The freedom to express views on a public sidewalk is an essential aspect of our constitutional guarantees and no business has any business taking those rights away.”