Federal ruling favors restrictions; preachers’ attorney may appeal
Buffer zones created by Salt Lake leaders to keep the peace during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ‘ semiannual conferences are constitutional, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell on Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of the restrictions, striking down claims that they violated protesters’ rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.
The World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship sued the city in March, immediately after the zones were approved for use during the LDS Church’s April 2004 conference. Campbell denied a request to prevent the new rules from going into effect pending resolution of the case, a decision that was upheld by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The challenged restrictions forbid street preachers from remaining stationary anywhere but in designated areas away from the main pedestrian traffic flow during specified times.
City Attorney Ed Rutan said Tuesday’s ruling is a correct application of the legal questions at issue and will provide guidance for future conferences.
“It’s a very difficult balance that the city has to try to strike in these situations between protecting public safety and still maintaining the opportunity for free expression,” he said. “I think the court, in upholding the basic approach that the city pursued in April and October of this year, has certainly given the city guidance on how that balance can be struck.”
Preachers’ attorney Geoffrey Dobbin said he was disappointed with Campbell’s decision but agreed that the court was asked to address some challenging questions. He planned to meet with his clients and carefully analyze the ruling before making a decision on a possible appeal to the 10th Circuit.
Largely, the restrictions passed constitutional muster on the free-speech claims based on Campbell’s finding that they are content-neutral.
“The zones apply equally to all demonstrators, and nothing in their design requires the city to make decisions on where or when protesters can speak based on their particular point of view,” the order states. “In fact, all speakers, regardless of message, are permitted to speak within the zones as long as the restrictions are met (no standing in the crosswalks).”
The judge also found that the restrictions meet the significant government interests of ensuring adequate pedestrian traffic flow and protecting the safety of the estimated 100,000 people who frequent Temple Square during the conferences. Specifically, Campbell noted two incidents during the October 2003 conference in which clashes between protesters and conferencegoers resulted in arrests.
“The city not only has a significant interest, but a duty, to ensure the safety of these persons, as well as others who are walking, driving and demonstrating, near or at the Conference,” Tuesday’s order states.
After finding the zones do not violate free-speech rights, Campbell turned to the preachers’ claims that the restrictions violated their rights to freely exercise their religion. At oral arguments in the case last month, attorneys argued the zones prevented the preachers from effectively spreading their evangelical message. The preachers’ success, attorney Randall Wenger said, comes from their ability to personally interact with others.
Campbell, however, ruled that the zones, at most, “incidentally burden” the preachers’ religious practices and do not raise to the level of a constitutional violation.
A spokesman for the LDS Church declined to comment on Tuesday’s ruling, noting the church has never been a party in the case.
The basic framework of the buffer zones will remain in place for the April 2005 conference, Rutan said, although the restrictions change slightly with each gathering depending on how many demonstrators apply for permits to protest in designated reserved areas.