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City denying Christians' right to speak in public park

The city of Duluth, Minn., which was ordered by a judge to allow free speech in a public park, now is accused of ignoring that order in a court filing asking a judge to rule city officials in contempt of court.

An “Emergency Motion to Enforce Preliminary Injunction and Hold Defendants in Contempt” has been filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which a year ago fought the city in a battle over free speech rights.

At that time, the court ordered that the city could not ban the First Amendment when people wanted to talk about their Christian faith at a public park during the so-called “Bentleyville Tour of Lights,” an annual event in the city.

The order was obtained last year after the city banned people from peacefully talking with passers-by and handing out Christian literature.

But police in Duluth, on the orders of city officials, this year have been enforcing the prohibition on speech again, the filing alleges.

“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 Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Jonathan Scruggs, who is co-counsel in the case with Nate Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression. “The court ordered the city to respect the First Amendment, but it is not doing so. We are therefore asking the court to enforce its order and hold the city in contempt. It has disregarded both the court’s order and what the order sought to protect: the constitutionally protected freedom of citizens to engage in non-disruptive speech in a public place.”

ADF reported that Steve Jankowski and some of his friends went to the public property just days ago where the free event was being held and were told by a police officer “that they could only engage in their free speech activities in a designated ‘First Amendment zone’ outside of the area.”

The men were threatened with arrest, ADF said, even though the location, event and city were subject to the court’s injunction at the time. ADF said the city was “ignoring” the court’s instructions.

In the original order, Judge Michael David found in December 2011, “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.”

The judge had found, “If the governmental efforts to protect funeral attendees from inflammatory picketers cannot survive intermediate scrutiny [in a different case], it is unlikely that the city could justify restricting the plaintiffs’ activities, which by all accounts, are peaceful and respectful.”

ADF lawyers noted that the city explained that it changed the “agreement” and thus canceled the court’s order.

Then, ADF alleges, the city concealed its maneuver from the lawyer handling the original case “until just days before the 2012 Tour of Lights event.”

WND was unable to reach city officials for comment.

But in a letter to ADF, Nathan LaCoursiere, an assistant attorney for the city, said, “it is the city’s position that the previous injunction issued in this matter no longer applies.”

The judge’s original finding said that the city park where the events are held “is and remains a public park, and therefore a traditional public forum, despite the agreement between the city and the promoters of this event.”

And he noted, “The city has failed to set forth any government interest served by prohibiting plaintiffs from exercising their First Amendment rights.”