Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Free Speech in Minneapolis

There has been a free speech battle going on in Minneapolis over an evangelist’s right to hand out Bibles at one of the nation’s largest gay pride events. And I’m happy to report that free speech was victorious. It started when the Minneapolis Park Board decided to allow Brian Johnson, a Christian evangelist, to attend the event and hand out Bibles, saying they were going to “err on the side of free speech.”

The chairman of that park board is gay himself, but he did the right thing:

“The Park Board thinks it’s dangerous precedent to exclude someone from a public park and a public event because they have a differing view,” said Park Board President John Erwin, who says he is gay and a Christian. Erwin said he finds Johnson’s anti-gay message to be “reprehensible,” but Erwin added, “I do believe he has the right to be wrong in a park.”

The festival organizers then filed a federal suit and asked the judge for an injunction keeping Johnson away from the festival. This was doomed to fail from the start. If Johnson had filed suit asking to be allowed to distribute literature, he has a clear constitutional case — the First Amendment. But what right could the festival assert in such a suit?

Not only is there no constitutional right to avoid exposure to ideas one doesn’t like, the First Amendment guarantees that you will inevitably be exposed to such ideas. Welcome to a free society. And the federal judge quickly rejected the request for an injunction in the case:

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ruled that the First Amendment gives Brian Johnson the right to evangelize there as long as he’s not disruptive.

Tunheim wrote that although organizers paid $36,000 for a permit to use the park, that did not afford them the right to restrict the speech of those in it…

He wrote that although festival organizers are entitled to decide who may be sponsors and exhibitors, Johnson, 53, of Hayward, Wis., is entitled to speak and hand out literature in a public park. He called these “quintessential activities protected by the First Amendment, so long as he remains undisruptive.”

This is exactly right. If Johnson disrupts the event by trying to drown out a designated speaker, for example, then they can throw him out. But the mere act of handing out literature and talking to people is not disruptive, no matter how much they may disagree with what he has to say.