A federal lawsuit has been filed against the city of Buffalo, N.Y., alleging that police threatened to arrest a Christian for peacefully handing out tracts and talking with passersby who were willing to chat with him on public property.
While handing out tracts to willing recipients on a public street during a public festival, Owen was approached by a police officer who declined to identify himself but told him that the Buffalo Police Department is “the law” and he should stop handing out tracts.
According to the lawsuit: “Subsequently, another police officer, Officer Slomka, arrived on the scene. She quickly informed Owen that they could not hand out tracts in the festival and explained that the prohibition was ‘by our orders.’ Owen asked for her name, and she replied: ‘Slomka, write it down.’ Owen advised that he believed the tracts to be free speech; nonplussed, Officer Slomka reiterated that they couldn’t hand out tracts there and had to go outside of the festival area to continue with their expressive activity.”
Then, “Owen inquired as to whether they would be arrested if they continued to hand out tracts in the festival area, to which, Officer Slomka replied: ‘Yes.'”
Nate Kellum, one of more than 2,100 attorneys in the ADF alliance, said people of faith “shouldn’t be threatened with arrest for peacefully expressing their beliefs.”
“The Constitution and court precedent in these types of cases is clear: Officials cannot toss someone out of a public event simply because they don’t like the views he’s expressing,” he said.
“This is a classic example of free speech that the First Amendment protects,” he said.
The dispute developed as Owen, together with a friend and members of his family, walked up and down Hertel Avenue during the Buffalo Italian Heritage Festival and handed out Christian literature.
The lawsuit explains he was on a public street in a section of town known as “Little Italy.”
Officers eventually claimed that his speech violated a permit granted by the city to festival organizers.
However, ADF reported: “In truth, the city issued a non-exclusive use permit to festival organizers that does not prohibit members of the public from exercising their free speech rights protected by the First Amendment. The event was free and open to the public, and the street remained at all times a public thoroughfare.”
ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Jonathan Scruggs argued “exercising your constitutionally protected free speech rights is not a crime.”
“Threatening to arrest Christians simply because they choose to exercise those rights in a public place is a clear violation of the First Amendment,” he said.
The filing also notes that while officers were detaining the Christians, they witnessed another group of people handing out literature, unmolested by police. Owen “pointed out the differing treatment and suggested that they (his group and the other two gentlemen) were being singled out because they are Christian.”
He then tried to hand out tracts again.
“But Officer Slomka physically prevented Owen from distributing tracts, snatching the tracts out of Owen’s hand. She warned Owen, ‘I’m not playing, if you hand out one more tract, you’re going to jail,'” according to the complaint.
Ultimately, the complaint said, a Capt. Blosat ordered Owen and the others to leave the public street.
The case alleges violations of freedom of speech and due process and seeks a judgment that the Buffalo police were in violation of Owen’s constitutional rights.
“The ban on Owen’s literature distribution continues to chill and deter Owen’s religious expression,” the complaint states, especially, since Owen “observed that these decisions appear to turn on the message.”
The dispute is just the latest in a number of cases in which municipalities have infringed on the free-speech rights of Christians. Cases have included bans on Christian speech at city festivals and the confinement of Christian street preachers to designated “zones.”
A recent case arose in Dearborn, Mich., where authorities sought to prevent a minister from speaking in public. City officials, who recently had been ordered to pay $100,000 for violating the rights of Christians, demanded the pastor sign a “Hold Harmless” agreement that essentially required the minister to “surrender all of his legal rights” in order to speak on public property.
That dispute was argued by the Thomas More Law Center on behalf of a pastor who preaches on radical Islam, Shariah, same-sex “marriage” and other hot-button topics.