Judge appears leery of SLC’s speech rules

U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell on Tuesday questioned Salt Lake City’s reasons for new speech regulations designed to put more distance between Mormons and street preachers during this weekend’s LDS worldwide conference.

During a 3 1/2-hour hearing, she wondered why the city doesn’t just add more police officers around areas where the protesters want to stand to preach against the LDS Church.

She quizzed the city on why preachers won’t be allowed to spread out and stand single file on the length of the public sidewalks on North Temple, as they have done in the past.

Mormons and Free Speech

A small number of street preachers do have a history of poor behavior. Particularly, the approach taken by members of the Street Preachers Fellowship tends to be particularly ill-advised.

Note that Mormons reserve for themselves the right to free speech – especially on your doorstep, where they do not refrain from making remarks considered offensive by Christians (e.g. claiming that the Book of Mormon – which is essentially a combination of fiction and plagiarism – is “another testament of Jesus Christ”). Mormons also claim to believe the Bible, but only when and where they consider it to be translated correctly (a handy way to avoid having to deal with sections that contradict Mormon theology)

And the judge suggested the city’s revised speech ordinance could be unconstitutional.

Campbell didn’t rule on whether to issue a temporary restraining order against the city’s new rules, as a group of street preachers has asked. She expects to rule by Thursday. The church’s conference is Saturday and Sunday.

Members of the World Wide Street Preachers’ Fellowship in past years have stood on the public sidewalk immediately adjacent to the midblock crosswalk between Temple Square and the Conference Center.

But the city plans to push the preachers a little farther west and place a physical buffer, such as a bike rack, between the preachers and Mormons.

“Why not have officers by the [crosswalk], if someone attacks the First Amendment persons, to hustle them off?” Campbell asked City Attorney Ed Rutan.

Rutan said there will be more officers on duty this conference. Still, “they can’t intervene quickly enough” if violence breaks out.

The police requested the new speech regulations based on last October’s sessions, when two Mormons were arrested for assaulting two preachers. About 12 preachers plan to show this year, and some have said they will protest with LDS garments, which Mormons consider sacred.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Rutan said the police have been trained not to arrest preachers who use garments or the Book of Mormon because those acts of symbolic speech are protected, much like flag burning.

Between conference sessions when up to 25,000 pedestrians are coming and going from the center, no one will be allowed to stand still on much of the public sidewalk on North Temple or in the crosswalks under the new rules. However, protesters and preachers can walk with conferencegoers.

The preachers don’t mind the physical buffers, but they prefer to stand to deliver their message. Attorney Geoffrey Dobbin said his clients want the city to use the same speech regulations as it has in the past.

Noting that preachers have not impeded pedestrian traffic flow before and that a vast majority of Mormons have not been moved to violence after hearing the preachers’ words, the preachers believe the city is violating their First Amendment rights to speech, exercise their religion and assemble.

The city argued the preachers will still be able to spread their message under the new rules.

Campbell pointed out to the preachers’ attorneys that their clients can stand near Main Street and West Temple. Referring to a U.S. Supreme Court case, Campbell also wondered about the conferencegoers’ rights.

“What about the rights of those people . . . who want to be left alone?” she asked.

Attorney Randall Wenger, representing the preachers, who participated over speaker phone, responded: “If you don’t like speech, turn away and don’t listen.”

The preachers also sued the city over its revised disturbing-the-peace ordinance, which says that “unreasonable” acts that “are inherently likely to cause a violent reaction” by the listener are illegal. Campbell described the ordinance as “too flexible.”

“Who will decide what is unreasonable or what will inherently cause violence? The cases I have looked at almost uniformly would find [part of the ordinance] unconstitutional,” she said.

Campbell said she doesn’t want to throw out the law, especially so close to conference. Wenger agreed to drop that part of the suit if he and Rutan can work out an agreement to say the city will narrowly interpret the ordinance.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Salt Lake Tribune, USA
Mar. 31, 2004
Heather May

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 31, 2004.
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