Where does “free speech” end? Does free speech mean the freedom for a group of Christians to come bearing placards and a soapbox and engage in long harangues towards Pagans engaging in a legally permitted assembly? That will be the question as a group of Christian evangelists have filed suit against the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan after being told to disperse from the public park where the annual Grand Rapids Pagan Pride Day was being held.
“On Sept. 23, Ickes and others attempted to address attendees of the Pagan Pride Festival at Richmond Hills Park. The group spoke using a small wooden platform but did not use amplification equipment. A Grand Rapids Police sergeant informed Ickes that a permit was required for their activities and claimed they were disturbing the peace. One group member was forcefully pulled from the platform by a second sergeant, handcuffed, and detained in the back of a police vehicle. One of the officers acknowledged to Ickes that an attempt to obtain a permit likely would have been denied by city officials to avoid “problems” caused by differing viewpoints between the group and festival attendees. Further, the officer admitted the festival did not have exclusive use of the park. Under continued threat of arrest, the group decided to leave the area.”
The complaint is an interesting read. In it, Ickes and his fellow preachers paint themselves as polite, orderly Christians hoping to share the good news.
“On Saturday, September 23, 2006, Ickes, along with a group of 7 others, went to Richmond Hills Park in Grand Rapids to speak with and preach to the crowd gathered for the Pagan Pride Festival at approximately 11:15 a.m. Mr. Ickes and others in his group also held Bibles and signs with messages of sin and God’s forgiveness. After dialogging with individual attendees at the festival, some SPF members began taking turns preaching to the crowd while standing atop a small wooden platform.”
Sounds so peaceful and innocent! How could anyone have complained! But if you read their web site, it becomes clear that these aren’t peaceful messengers for the brotherhood in Christ.
“The Street Preachers’ Fellowship traveled again to the Nation’s capital to preach to the NOW Parade of rebellious women, made up of 250,000 witches, whores, wackos and weight lifters who failed at being women. No commentary is needed to describe the ridiculous onslaught of failed feminism that marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. trying to be anything but a “Lady”… And while 99% of all the pastors in and around the nation’s capital did nothing, 250,000 of the liberal swine of female rebellion paraded down the middle of the streets of D.C., cursing, swearing, taking God’s name in vain, stripping their clothes off, and routinely smelling up the nation’s capital with their filthiness, whoredom and rebellion. With riot police in full body armor standing between, the SPF preachers confronted the mass of rebellious, loud mouthed riff raff that has produced the largest nation of sodomites the world has ever known.”
With a message like that I can’t imagine why the Pagan Pride organizers called the cops. While the Alliance Defense Fund tries to paint these men as free speech casualties, the actual law of Grand Rapids Michigan was against them.
“No person shall conduct or participate in any business activity, bazaar, sale, swap meet, barter activity or other activity of a commercial nature except pursuant to a permit issued by the Director of Parks and Recreation. No group political meetings or functions, religious meetings, public speeches, concerts, or other similar activities shall be held within a public park except pursuant to a permit issued by the Director of Parks and Recreation. A permit for such activities shall be issued by the Director of Parks and Recreation or his/her designee with reasonable restrictions only with regard to the time, place and manner of activity to be conducted.”
In other words, an organized Christian “religious meeting” can’t intrude on an already permitted and scheduled Pagan “religious meeting” on city property without a permit. If Ickes, the Street Preachers Fellowship, and the Alliance Defense Fund were to win this case, Christian groups in Grand Rapids would be allowed to set up next to Pagan events with no prior warning and “evangelize” (ie harass and intimidate) as much as they wanted. Of course it would also allow for any group to set up next to another in a public park so long as they didn’t physically attack them. So the Klan would be able to “peacefully” set up next to a Martin Luther King day celebration, and neo-Nazis could send their “message” to a Jewish festival so long as they don’t use electronic amplification.
While some free speech absolutists would agree to such a proposition, such a reality would create a larger “chilling effect” than preventing opposing groups to pounce on an already permitted public event. It would mean that no group could use a public space without fear of that event being disrupted by the “free speech” of their idealogical opponents. If free speech doesn’t allow someone to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, should it allow Christians to yell “hellfire” at a peaceful Pagan gathering?
ADDENDUM: Jerry Zarley at the Z’s Consciousness blog has found a court case that has several elements pertaining to this one.
“issued permits can be enforced to protect the permitted message even if this excludes other messages. This enforces the very purpose behind permitting schemes – to enable the expression of a particular message. In other words, an administrative permit scheme must be capable of enforcement.”
You can read the full opinion of the court, here.