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City of Duluth violates court order, reimposes First Amendment ban

Despite injunction, city again stops people from sharing their faith at ‘Tour of Lights’

DULUTH, Minn. — The city of Duluth is ignoring a court order that prevents it from enforcing a First Amendment ban on people desiring to share their faith at a public park during the “Bentleyville Tour of Lights” event. The violation of the order prompted Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys to file an emergency motion Tuesday that asks the court to enforce its injunction and hold the city in contempt.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys obtained the order last year after the city prohibited people from peacefully talking with passers-by and handing out Christian literature at the 2010 Tour of Lights. Despite the court order, which lifted the ban at the public event, police again prevented people from engaging in faith-based expression Saturday.

“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.”

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. Police told them that 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 willingly left the event.

In its order issued in December 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota prohibited the city from banning free speech: “If the governmental efforts to protect funeral attendees from inflammatory picketers cannot survive intermediate scrutiny,” the court wrote, referring to a 2011 federal appellate court decision in a different case, “it is unlikely that the City could justify restricting the Plaintiffs’ activities, which by all accounts, are peaceful and respectful.”

The city argues that the agreement between the city and the non-profit Tour of Lights has changed and therefore makes the court’s injunction null and void. The city waited more than a month--until just days before the 2012 Tour of Lights event--to disclose the new contract in a letter from assistant City Attorney Nathan LaCoursiere which stated that “it is the city’s position that the previous injunction issued in this matter no longer applies….”

“Clearly, the city should have sought to talk to us and the court about the injunction before violating it. The city’s improper actions do not change the fact that they have violated the First Amendment freedoms of these citizens,” Scruggs explained.

Minnesota attorneys Mark Peterson and Stan Zahorsky, two of nearly 2,200 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, are serving as local counsel in the case, Jankowski v. City of Duluth.

Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) is an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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