A federal judge has scolded the city of Duluth, Minn., and clarified his order that the First Amendment cannot be ignored during a holiday festival, but he stopped short of finding city officials in contempt because he said his order was not clear enough.
The issue was whether the city is allowed to banish free speech during a holiday lights festival at a local park. The judge’s original order said the city could not restrict speech at the events that were run by the 2012-2013 contract.
The city then simply canceled the contract, wrote a new one and started restricting speech again.
U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis reined in the city’s maneuver, however.
“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, the 2012 Tour of Lights event and all other future Tour of Lights events that take place during the pendency of this action, or until further order of this court,” wrote Davis in a new ruling this week.
Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom went to court for an emergency ruling when the city’s actions came to light. The original case was launched when the city prohibited people from talking peacefully with passers-by and handing out Christian literature.
ADF reported today “people are once again free to peacefully share their faith at the ‘Bentleyville Tour of Lights’ event.”
“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 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.”
This winter, Steve Jankowski and three friends went to the park to speak with passers-by and hand out Christian literature. Just as Jankowski’s friends began to do so, a police officer asked them to leave “even though they were conducting themselves in a non-disruptive manner,” ADF reported.
Officers then told the individuals they could only engage in their free speech activities in a designated “First Amendment zone” outside of the event area. After being told they would be arrested for trespass if they didn’t move, the men left the event.
The city argued that the agreement between the city and the non-profit Tour of Lights had changed and therefore made the court’s injunction null and void, but the court disagreed.
“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,” said the court’s new order.
The judge wrote that the park is a traditional public forum, and the city cannot change that simply by saying so.
“Courts have consistently held that a private event that takes place in a traditional public forum, and is free and open to the public, does not transform the nature of the forum during such event for purposes of analyzing a First Amendment claim,” he wrote.
“The court further finds that granting exclusive use of the park to BTLI has no impact on plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”
And he said the city should have played by the rules.
“The burden was on the city to seek judicial resolution first, before taking actions into its own hands,” he wrote. And added, “If … in the future the city believes that circumstances have materially changed, the city must first seek to vacate or modify the injunction prior to violating the injunction.”
ADF had brought an “Emergency Motion to Enforce Preliminary Injunction and Hold Defendants in Contempt” over the conflict.
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.”