Tevlin: Free speech matters when you don't agree with it

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2012 - 10:13 PM
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Steve Jankowski, of Duluth, preached to Dennis Oberg, 15, and Justin McConnell, 17, both of Cloquet, during the Bentleyville display of lights at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on Thursday.

Photo: Clint Austin, Duluth News Tribune

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The Bentleyville Tour of Lights Christmas extravaganza sprawls across Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park, sparkling in the night sky.

Visitors can see the Big Tree, a 128-foot iron and concrete tree with 50,000 lights. They can sit on Santa's lap, donate food and toys for the needy and even ride the Jingle Train.

What visitors can't do at the Bentleyville Tour of Lights is promote the guy who got this whole Christmas-y thing going: Christ himself.

In what has become an ongoing battle between the city of Duluth and some Christians who want to pass out literature and talk to people about their beliefs, the issue wound up back in court last week. A federal judge in Minneapolis sided, again, with the two preachers who want the right to discuss their Christian faith at the event. Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ruled that efforts by the city to block their access violate an injunction he issued last year that protected their free speech.

The light show began when Nathan Bentley started decorating his home in Esko. The display grew so large it overtook his neighborhood. When Bentleyville was on his property, Bentley had every right to prohibit preachers and proselytizers from his property.

In 2009, however, the Duluth mayor suggested that Bentley move his display to the waterfront for a "free, family event open to all." He didn't say "except preachers."

So, last year the preachers showed up, handed out literature and tried to get holiday light gawkers to talk about Christ. Bentley and the city didn't want visitors to be hassled, so they booted the pastors from the park. Subsequently, Judge Davis sided with the preachers and banned the city from preventing them at Bentleyville.

This year, Duluth and the nonprofit that sponsors the display pulled an end-run on the order. They drew up a new contract that gives Bentleyville an "exclusive use permit" for the park, which they said allowed the group to exclude people. Law enforcement officers directed the preachers to a "First Amendment Zone" in a nearby parking lot as a "compromise."

It's a similar tactic used at the Gay Pride event in Minneapolis, where a man who wanted to hand out Bibles was allowed a spot in the park. That case is pending in the Court of Appeals.

Personally, I'm all for a First Amendment Zone. It's called America.

Bentleyville seems like a good outfit; their mission statement is to provide food and toys for people who need them. I also understand they don't want visitors hassled while trying to enjoy the show. I also don't buy into this ludicrous "war on Christmas" nonsense.

I'm occasionally approached by religious enthusiasts, and I'm not fond of it. However, I find a polite "no thanks" usually does the trick. It doesn't seem to be a huge enough burden to me that I would try to prevent their free speech in a public place, and it certainly isn't enough to create tricky laws to stop them.

The case was actually one of two First Amendment battles in Minnesota that caught my eye last week. The second one takes place at the far opposite end of the field of land mines that is free speech. Crow Wing County is trying to put restrictions on an establishment, Risky Business Novelties and Videos, that sells sex-oriented materials out of a back room.

Crow Wing County changed its ordinance on adult businesses in a way that the owner claimed would essentially prohibit his version of free speech. So he sued in federal court.

Nobody said the First Amendment was supposed to be graceful.

Jane Kirtley, who specializes in media law at the University of Minnesota, said the two cases are essentially two prongs of the same idea: government entities trying clever ways to prohibit speech they don't want.

"People are focusing on religion" in the Bentleyville case, Kirtley said. "But it's just a free speech case" that would apply to anyone advocating ideas. "I think the judge's decision is correct. The reality is this is a public space and a public forum."

"It's fascinating how people are always in favor of free speech when it shares their own denomination, but against it when it differs," Kirtley said. As for the adult shop, "It's protected, period. [The new ordinance] is effectively trying to stop speech that is legal."

"The First Amendment is there to protect exactly the speech you don't like," Kirtley said. "When it's speech you like, then we don't need the amendment."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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