MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed suit against the United States Postal Service Friday for unconstitutionally prohibiting a man from peacefully distributing Christian literature in front of the Oakland post office. Michael Choate was arrested for “trespassing” at the request of the postmaster for handing out tracts on a public sidewalk 40 feet from the entrance of the post office.
“Christians shouldn’t be arrested and silenced for peacefully sharing their beliefs on public property,” said ADF Senior Counsel Nate Kellum. “The post office isn’t above the law and cannot take away citizens’ constitutionally protected rights just because it or its customers might not agree with the content of someone’s speech or literature. Our client isn’t harassing anyone; he’s simply desiring to quietly share his faith in a completely public forum.”
In July 2010, Choate handed out Christian tracts for two weeks in front of the Oakland post office without incident. The following month, Choate continued his peaceful activity on the public sidewalk about 40 feet from the building’s entrance and was approached by Postmaster Terrena Moore, who ordered him to leave the property or face arrest. Choate tried to calm Moore and expressed that he would wait for the police.
Within minutes, two police officers arrived and ordered Choate to leave or be arrested for trespassing. Confused, Choate asked how he could possibly be trespassing on public property. The officers indicated that if the postmaster says a person is trespassing on postal property, that person is trespassing and must leave. Believing he still had the right to express his beliefs on public property, Choate did not leave, so the officers arrested him on criminal trespassing charges, which were later dropped. He ceased his expressive activities thereafter.
Still desiring to share his message, Choate asked Moore several weeks later why she considered him a trespasser. She pointed to 39 C.F.R. § 232.1(e)--a provision against “disturbances”--telling him that some customers were “annoyed” by his expressive activities.
Last November, ADF attorneys sent a letter to the USPS on Choate’s behalf, explaining that he has the constitutionally protected right to distribute literature on public property in front of the post office and requesting assurance that he be allowed to continue his activities. The following month, a USPS attorney stated that under the provision cited by Moore, Choate would not be allowed to distribute literature if he “tends to impede or disturb Postal Service employees or customers….”
ADF attorneys contend in their lawsuit that the provision unconstitutionally gives postal employees “unbridled discretion to prohibit peaceful literature distribution anytime they or a customer finds Choate’s message or viewpoint objectionable.” Garry J. Rhoden of Memphis, one of more than 2,000 attorneys in the ADF alliance, is assisting with the lawsuit Choate v. United States Postal Service, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, Western Division.
- Pronunciation guide: Choate (CHOAT’)
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.