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City of Columbus prevented from halting free speech on public street

Federal appeals court reverses district court decision, ADF case opens avenue for free speech
Published On: 10/18/2017

CINCINNATI—The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed a lower court’s decision that upheld a prohibition against a pastor’s religious expression on a public street at the Columbus Arts Festival.

“The City of Columbus said this man was free to browse the art and buy a hot dog but was not free to speak.  The court today said that’s unconstitutional,” said Nate Kellum, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney based in Memphis, Tenn., who represented the pastor in the case.

In June 2002, a police officer told Douglas Parks, the pastor of a small Columbus-area church, that he must stop walking down the street wearing a sign with a religious message and distributing tracts at the Columbus Arts Festival, even though, as the court today agreed, he was “acting in a peaceful manner” and “the only difference between him and the other patrons” was his sign and leaflets.  The officer had received a complaint from an official with the Columbus Arts Council who did not agree with Parks’ point of view.

Parks, who was threatened with arrest if he did not promptly move beyond the area of the street barricaded for the festival, complied with the officer’s request.  Because few people were gathered beyond the barricaded area, Parks left the area entirely.

Later, after the city refused to remove its ban against Parks, he filed suit in federal court for violation of his First Amendment rights.  The district court upheld the city’s actions, but the appeals court today reversed that decision.

“The city basically told Mr. Parks that he was free to speak as long as there was no one to listen to him,” Kellum explained.  “The 6th Circuit pointed out the clearly unconstitutional nature of that.  Their decision today affirms a person’s right in this country to walk down the street and share information with a neighbor.”

In the opinion issued today, the court wrote that the city “has not offered an interest, let alone a compelling one” to explain its actions:  “As the Supreme Court has emphasized, ‘[t]he right to free speech…may not be curtailed simply because the speaker’s message may be offensive to his audience….’  In the case before us, the City has applied a regulation in such a way that restricts the freedom of speech of one of its citizens.  The First Amendment does not tolerate this.”

The case, Douglas R. Parks v. City of Columbus, et al., was originally filed May 28, 2003, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio at Columbus.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family. 


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