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Court: City of Duluth violated court order by reimposing First Amendment ban

Free speech once again free at ‘Tour of Lights’

DULUTH, Minn. — People are once again free to peacefully share their faith at the “Bentleyville Tour of Lights” event in Duluth. A federal court ruled Wednesday that the city violated a court order when it reinstated a First Amendment ban at the event. The ban had again prevented people from peacefully sharing their faith at the public park where the event is being held, but the new court order clarifies that the injunction against the ban is still in place.

The city’s disregard of the original order prompted Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys to file an emergency motion last month that asked the court to enforce its injunction.

“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.”

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys obtained the original 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 last month.

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.

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,” the court wrote in its new order. “The Court further finds that granting exclusive use of the Park to BTLI has no impact on Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

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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