Tuesday, January 25, 2005

New Federal Appellate Rulings For Street Preachers

Two federal appellate courts issued rulings today (Tuesday) pertaining to the rights of street preachers. (Thanks to How Appealing for noting them)...

The Fourth Circuit decision, Moore v. City of Asheville, involved a North Carolina carpenter who travels around doing street preaching; in March and April 2003, he twice received tickets/fines for violating the city's noise ordinance. He paid the fines at the time (the first was $50 and the second $100, because he was a repeat offender), and then waiting a long time before going to court to protest this infringement on his free speech rights. He waited too long; the time had elapsed for state administrative review of his fines, so he went into federal court. The Circuit Court's opinion does not address his free speech rights, but rahter the procedural question of whether a federal court can entertain a case about state or local fines when the petitioner let the time elapse so he could no longer pursue them through the normal state-level channels. He cannot (he lost). Lesson to street preachers: if you get fined or ticketed, and think you have a legal case to challenge the fine, do it right away - file an appeal with the state's administrative review system. You snooze, you loose, basically. Sorry.

The Sixth Circuit decision is more interesting (Parks v. City of Columbus). In this case, the city of Columbus, Ohio, licensed a private entity, the Arts Council, to hold its annual Arts Festival along Civic Center Drive (it was a permit to hold a block party; they were also licensed to sell alcohol). Significantly, these permits are always "non-exclusive" - meaning the event hosts must allow other citizens to use the sidewalks, etc. Mr. Parks is a traveling street preacher/evangelist to goes to public events to hold evangelistic signs, distribute leaflets, and talk to people. He entered the area of the Arts Festival while it was underway wearing a sign with a religious message (the case record does not indicate what the sign said. An off-duty policeman, who was wearing his uniform and identified himself as an officer, had been hired by the Arts Council as a security guard, and he ordered Parks to leave the area; Parks obliged grudgingly. He later sent a letter to City official protesting what happened, and he was rebuffed - they said he had no right to be there. A federal district court agreed; the Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed the lower court's decision, holding that there was no compelling state interest to justify the restriction of sppech in this case, that the permits were non-exclusive and therefore Parks had a right to enter the area, and that the action of the off-duty but uniformed officer constituted state action. Lesson for street preachers: city festivals might be fair game, even if someone tells you they aren't. But it depends in part on the types of licenses or permits issued in that particular city, and the reason you were asked to leave. If Parks had been disrupting the Festival itself, the outcome would have been different.