Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
The chief of an evangelical ministry called Repent America has filed a civil lawsuit against the National Park Service for restricting his speech at the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, which houses the artifact from American history that rang to announce the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence and is inscribed with “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof,” a biblical quotation from Leviticus 25:10.
The case is being brought by Repent America’s Michael Marcavage, who was fined and given probation for speaking on public property outside the center after rangers told him to shut up or take his speech to a so-called “free-speech zone” on the other side of the building.
“In the birthplace of American freedom, at the site of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, people now do not have a right to stand on a public sidewalk and express their beliefs – in this particular case, the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Marcavage has said. “And if [authorities] can shut down the gospel from being preached, they can shut down any message.”
The complaint, filed by attorney C. Scott Shields on behalf of Marcavage, seeks injunctive and declaratory relief “in aid of his constitutional rights to free speech, equal protection under the law and other civil rights guaranteed by the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.”
The conflict was captured on video:
The situation developed Oct. 6, 2007, when Marcavage was on a public sidewalk near the Liberty Bell Center entrance.
“Mr. Marcavage rose to express his disapproval of abortion and to speak to passersby, at the same time that the Komen Breast Cancer walkers were utilizing the same sidewalk as a forum for expressing their opinions and viewpoints,” the complaint says.
“However, Mr. Marcavage was told that he couldn’t stand on the … block and express his viewpoint and was instead given a verbal permit to express his viewpoint in another part of the Independence Mall, far away from where the Breast Cancer walkers were expressing their viewpoint,” it continues.
The center’s rangers ordered him to be quiet or move; then they arrested him and accused him of “violating the terms of a permit” and “interfering with agency functions.”
He was fined and given probation, but his conviction currently is on appeal before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Now Marcavage alleges the park service operators and rangers “refused to allow him the same opportunity to speak as afforded other citizens using the same sidewalk.”
The claim explains, “solely because of the content of his speech, Mr. Marcavage was told that he had to move to the other side of the building by Rangers Crane and Saperstein.”
The case says that during the criminal trial, park officials admitted that Marcavage was ordered to move under “a regulation that had yet to be made public … which created free-speech zones.”
“Defendants’ policy and practice of cutting off Mr. Marcavage’s speech, ordering him to move after issuing a verbal permit, while allowing others to use the same area to engage in their expressive activities, and then forcibly arresting and removing from the area and ultimately bringing criminal charges, interfered with the exercise of his constitutionally protected right to free speech on the basis of the content of his speech, and adversely affected his right to free speech,” the case suggests.
“We need to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” he told the crowd.
“The only thing that I was guilty of that day was preaching the Gospel and against the shedding of innocent blood,” Marcavage said. “The government not only put me on trial, but also the liberties of the American people.
“If they shut down our ability to speak, they shut down the Gospel; they shut down any message. If the government prevails in this case, America’s experiment in liberty has finally reached its demise,” Marcavage said.
On his blog, Marcavage has noted that such government-mandated “free-speech zones” are being established across the country in an effort by cities, colleges and other institutions to hinder free speech outside of those specific “zones.”
The blog cited a 2007 study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which found 259 of 346 colleges studied maintained such free-speech restrictions.
In United States vs. Michael A. Marcavage, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goldberg stood behind the practice of government-regulated zones, stating in court that “nowhere does the law say that the government cannot regulate speech on a sidewalk used by the public.”