Judge says man can't hand out Bibles at Twin Cities Pride fest

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2012 - 8:22 PM

At issue was freedom of speech, Pride event's accommodations.

Brian Johnson

A Wisconsin man who wants to hand out Bibles at the 40th Annual Twin Cities Pride festival in Loring Park this month will have to confine himself to a booth just outside of the event.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis issued a 41-page order Monday denying Brian Johnson's request for an injunction that would force the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to allow him unfettered access to the festival grounds, reasoning that his constitutional challenge was unlikely to succeed.

Dot Belstler, Twin Cities Pride's executive director, said the ruling came as welcome news.

But it's unlikely to end the matter, which has been bouncing around the courts since 2009.

Nate Kellum, chief counsel with the Center for Religious Expression and Johnson's lead attorney, issued a statement Monday indicating that other legal options are being explored.

"We are certainly disappointed in this ruling that fails to take Mr. Johnson's First Amendment freedoms into account," Kellum wrote. "Mr. Johnson should be allowed to hand out Bibles in a public area during a public festival and not be relegated to a 'no pride' zone where nobody bothers to go. Without an audience, Mr. Johnson is utterly deprived of his right to free speech."

Johnson, an evangelical Christian and taxidermist from Hayward, said in his lawsuit that he has distributed Bibles at the annual event since 1995 and that he had no problems until 2009, when the organization refused to rent him a booth after an exchange about his views on homosexuality.

Johnson and his family planned to walk through the 2009 event distributing Bibles, but festival officials told them they weren't welcome, his suit says. A police officer allegedly told Johnson that the park was "private property" that day, and Johnson was arrested when they didn't leave. The charges were dropped.

Festival planners sued the Park Board in 2010, seeking an injunction that would head off Johnson's plans to return to the festival, but lost when U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled that a broad restriction based on the content of Johnson's speech would violate his rights under the First Amendment. He returned to the festival.

Seeking to head him off in 2011, Twin Cities Pride and the Park Board reached a settlement agreement stipulating that the board would set up booths in the park but outside of the festival area for people excluded by the festival planners. All literature distributed inside the festival area must be done from booths approved by Twin Cities Pride. But the organizers also agreed to set up an unattended "drop zone" inside the festival where anyone could leave information. The agreement does not bar anyone from walking through the festival to share their views with willing listeners.

Judge: Booth is close enough

Davis noted that the booth area set up by the Park Board this year is at Oak Grove St. and Lyndale Av. S. It's near one of the park's main entrances, he said, and is "contiguous with the festival's 'Purple Zone,' which includes a dining area, a food court, an entertainment stage and roughly 100 booths for festival participants."

The Park Board argued that the approach allows for safe, efficient crowd management.

In denying Johnson's motion for a restraining order, Davis noted that "free expression in a public forum is a core liberty that must be guarded with vigilance." But he said it must be balanced with the rights of others and with legitimate government concerns.

"Courts therefore recognize that, when the government seeks to regulate the time, place or manner of speech in a public forum and does so in a content-neutral manner, its actions are constitutional so long as they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant interest and allow alternative channels of communication," Davis wrote.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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