Few changes to free-speech laws

S.L. attorney ends lengthy review, will urge minor alteration

With one month until The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints‘ annual general conference, Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan’s office has finished a four-month examination of the city’s free-speech ordinances.

The Mormon Church

Given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.

But that lengthy review has brought few recommended changes to city code. In fact, Rutan is recommending that the City Council only alter a few lines of the city’s existing ordinances governing free speech.

That modification falls short of what the LDS Church wanted. Back in December the church had suggested more sweeping ordinance changes, including “buffer” zones between street preachers and conference attendees.

Rutan will offer his recommendations to the City Council Tuesday, suggesting that the council alter one city ordinance to outlaw “acts, gestures and displays” that incite violence or “are inherently likely to cause a violent reaction” or “create a clear and present danger of a breach of the peace or imminent threat of violence.”

Presently, the city’s disturbing-the-peace ordinance only bans “words” that were actually “intended to cause acts of violence.”

Salt Lake City Rocky Anderson had Rutan examine the city’s ordinances governing free speech after clashes arose between Christian street preachers, who are critical of the LDS Church, and attendees of the October semi-annual general conference. Those skirmishes erupted after street preachers donned religious clothing considered sacred by LDS members. Seeing the preachers wear the garments around their necks was too much for two men, who assaulted the preachers and stole the clothing.

Given that history, the “acts, gestures and displays” addition may be significant since some might consider wearing the sacred clothing as an act that is “inherently likely to cause a violent reaction.”

But Anderson doesn’t think so, and he reiterated Friday that the wearing of the sacred clothing is probably akin to flag burning, which federal courts have ruled to be free speech.

“If burning a flag as symbolic speech is protected under the First Amendment then an analogy could be drawn to the display of garments,” he said.

Last month, Anderson and Rutan released more informal “free-speech guidelines” that were designed to educate street preachers and others about what is and what is not constitutionally protected speech. Those guidelines were met with indignation from the street preachers, who said city leaders couldn’t prohibit any of their speech since it is religious in nature.

Besides making the slight alteration to the disturbing-the-peace ordinance, Rutan examined seven other city ordinances — those governing stalking, causing a riot, disrupting a meeting, public nuisance, obstructing the sidewalk, loitering and standing, lying or sitting on streets and highways — to determine whether they are “up to date constitutionally and whether they are providing the police with the authority to respond to particular situation as they arise,” according to a memo Rutan penned to Deputy Mayor Rocky Fluhart.

Rutan recommended no changes to those other seven ordinances.

The LDS Church probably wanted more. Back in December, LDS Church attorney Von Keetch penned a letter to Rutan suggesting that the city craft laws to separate opposing demonstrators, keep demonstrators from getting too close to conference-goers, craft a stricter noise ordinance and require permits for all demonstrations and protests — even spontaneous ones — especially those near the Conference Center.

“When a major conference is in session — be it LDS general conference or other gatherings — no demonstrations should be allowed in the immediate vicinity without a permit from the city,” Keetch wrote. “This will allow the city to establish appropriate buffer or demonstration zones based on the demonstrations that will occur and the requirements of public safety and order.”

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Deseret Morning News, USA
Mar. 6, 2004
Brady Snyder

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 8, 2004.
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