Free Speech Victory!

Police Silence Preachers_victory2-01 (002)On March 28, 2018, a federal judge sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan signed an Order permanently enjoining the enforcement of the City of Westland’s disturbing the peace ordinance as applied to the “expressive activity of pro-life demonstrators.”

The Order comes as a result of a civil rights lawsuit filed by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) against the City on behalf of Pastor Dan McGhee.  The Order also requires the City to pay AFLC $28,000 in attorneys’ fees.

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

More specifically, Pastor McGhee challenged 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.

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, City police officers arrested him for allegedly violating the City’s disturbing the peace ordinance.  Pastor McGhee witnessed the arrest.

The officers placed Mr. Zastrow in handcuffs, transported him via a police cruiser to the City’s police department, and held him 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, 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, a City police officer 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 the officer’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 the City officer’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 would be arrested and subject to prosecution for engaging in his speech activity.  Rather than face arrest, Pastor McGhee filed this lawsuit.

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

“This is a clear victory for the First Amendment!  Now that the Court has signed the Order halting the unlawful enforcement of the City’s ordinance, Pastor McGhee and his pro-life companions are free to return to Northland and preach the Gospel loud and clear.  There was no doubt that this ordinance is unconstitutional because it operated to inhibit the exercise of a fundamental right.”

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

“The basic problem with the City’s disturbing the peace ordinance was not only that it permitted arbitrary and unlawful enforcement, as we saw with the arrest of Mr. Zastrow, but it also chilled the free speech of Pastor McGhee and others, who had 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.”