Pastor Dan McGhee v. City of Westland, et al.,

Police Silence Preachers-2On September 29, 2017, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Westland, Michigan and Officer John Gatti, a City police officer, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The lawsuit alleges that the City violated Pastor Dan McGhee’s fundamental constitutional rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

More specifically, Pastor McGhee is challenging the constitutionality of the City’s disturbing the peace ordinance, facially and as applied to restrict the speech activity of pro-life demonstrators who engage in their First Amendment protected activity outside of the Northland Family Planning Center, a notorious abortion facility located along Ford Road in Westland, Michigan.

Per the Complaint filed in this case, on June 24, 2017, Pastor McGhee and several other pro-life demonstrators, including Mr. Calvin Zastrow, went to the public sidewalk adjacent to Northland to protest abortion, to preach the Gospel, and to convince those who visit and work at Northland, the City police officers who respond to Northland’s overzealous complaints about the pro-life demonstrators, and those who are passing by Northland along Ford Road that abortion is an intrinsic evil and thus contrary to God’s law.

Pastor McGhee and the other pro-life demonstrators want to impact the hearts and minds of those who visit and work at Northland to inspire them to repent and to stop killing unborn babies through abortion.

Northland is located in a commercial district along Ford Road.  At this location, Ford Road is a very busy five lane road (two lanes east bound, two lanes west bound, and a center turn lane).  The vehicle traffic on this road is very loud, and it can be heard from more than 50 feet away.  Consequently, in order to effectively preach their pro-life Gospel message, Pastor McGhee and the other pro-lifers must raise their voices to be heard over the traffic and other noise that is customary in a commercial area and that is particular to this area.

While at Northland on June 24, 2017, Pastor McGhee and the other pro-life demonstrators were preaching, singing worship songs, displaying pro-life signs, and handing out Christian literature on the public sidewalk and the public grassy median area adjacent to Northland and Ford Road.

While Mr. Zastrow was holding a pro-life sign and preaching on the public median next to the sidewalk, Officer Gatti and Officer Deandre Plear arrested him for allegedly violating the City’s disturbing the peace Ordinance.  Pastor McGhee witnessed the arrest.

Officers Gatti and Plear placed Mr. Zastrow in handcuffs.  Mr. Zastrow was then transported via a police cruiser to the City’s police department and held in the City’s detention cell until Pastor McGhee could arrive at the police station and post a $500 bond to secure Mr. Zastrow’s release.

According to the City’s police report, which was drafted by Officer Gatti,

“Upon arrival [officers] parked their patrol vehicles in the center of the [Northland] facility’s parking lot and could immediately could (sic) hear a protestor, Calvin Zastrow, yelling from the easement on Ford [Road].  Zastrow could be heard from over 50 [feet] away yelling about babies being murdered.  Zastrow’s actions were gaining the attention of people passing by and drawing the attention of employees at the location attempting to conduct business. . . .  [Officer Gatti] advised Zastrow that he was being too loud and the yelling had to stop or he could be arrested for disturbing the peace.  As [Officer Gatti] walked away Zastrow accused [him] of trying to intimidate him and continued to yell and stated that [Officer Gatti] was assisting in the murdering of babies.  [Officer Gatti] returned to the parking lot where Zastrow continued to yell quotes of scripture and accusations of murder.  [Officer] Plear and [Officer Gatti] then arrested Zastrow for disturbing the peace.”

In other words, Mr. Zastrow was arrested for engaging in his pro-life speech activity.

The City charged Mr. Zastrow with violating the City’s disturbing the peace ordinance.

Immediately following the arrest of Mr. Zastrow, Officer Gatti approached Pastor McGhee and another pro-life demonstrator and told them directly that Mr. Zastrow was arrested because he could be heard from more than 50 feet away, warning Pastor McGhee and the other pro-life demonstrator that the same could happen to them.  The arrest of Mr. Zastrow and Officer Gatti’s warning to Pastor McGhee and others was captured on video:


As a direct result of Mr. Zastrow’s arrest, the existence of the City’s vague and overly broad disturbing the peace ordinance, and Officer Gatti’s threat that Pastor McGhee would also be subject to arrest for engaging in similar expressive activity, Pastor McGhee has not returned to Northland for fear that he too will be arrested and subject to prosecution for engaging in his speech activity.  Rather than face arrest, Pastor McGhee filed this lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, Pastor McGhee alleges that the City’s disturbing the peace ordinance, facially and as applied to restrict the free speech rights of pro-life demonstrators, violates the First Amendment (Free Speech and Free Exercise) and the Fourteenth Amendment (Equal Protection and Due Process).

Robert Muise, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, commented:

“The City’s disturbing the peace ordinance lacks explicit standards thereby permitting arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement and thus impermissibly delegating basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application, as this case illustrates.  Indeed, because this ordinance abuts upon sensitive areas of basic First Amendment freedoms, it operates to inhibit the exercise of those freedoms in violation of our Constitution.”

David Yerushalmi, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, added:

“The basic problem with such vague and overbroad laws such as the City’s disturbing the peace ordinance is that not only do they permit arbitrary and unlawful enforcement, as we saw with the arrest of Mr. Zastrow, but they also lead citizens such as Pastor McGhee to steer far wider of the unlawful zone than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked.  In the First Amendment context, such laws are prohibited.”

CASE UPDATE (10/26/17): We filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, seeking to enjoin the enforcement of the disturbing the peace ordinance to permit our client’s free speech activity while the case proceeds.

CASE UPDATE (11/30/17): We filed our reply in support of our motion for preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (12/7/17): The City filed a motion to dismiss, and we responded.

CASE UPDATE (3/28/18): The Court signed an order enjoining the enforcement of the disturbing the peace ordinance as applied to restrict pro-life expressive activity and directing the City to pay AFLC $28,000 in attorneys’ fees.  Case closed.