Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — April 20, 2020. Today, the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) filed a lawsuit in the federal district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. This suit seeks relief from a State Capitol policy that banishes disfavored free speech from the perimeter of a public memorial park next to the capitol building while a public festival is occurring therein.
On July 27, 2019, Stephen Garisto and a few friends went to Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Grove Memorial Park to hand out Christian literature and strike up conversations about God’s love. Their intent was to speak with people entering the Central Pennsylvania Pride Festival that was occurring inside the Grove that day. Garisto and his friends set up on the grassy perimeter of the park, well outside the festival area, ensuring they would not interfere with the event.
“YOU – Go to the dumpsters!”
Yet, before they had a chance to speak with anyone, they were approached by a sergeant with the Capitol Police, who ordered them to go across the street from the park – next to large dumpsters full of garbage. The police claimed this was because the festival organizers had a permit covering to the curb of the park, and they didn’t want Garisto and friends speaking there. Garisto and his friends objected to the ouster, but the sergeant was adamant, threatening to arrest them for trespassing if they did not leave immediately. Fearing arrest, Garisto and his friends complied. Because the new location gave Garisto no opportunity to reach people, he eventually gave up and left.
CRE sent a letter to Capitol officials seeking relief for Garisto, but they declined to provide any. They defended their policy of discriminatorily banishing free speech that private festival permittees did not like from the perimeter of the park, and confining it to the remote area across the street. Left with no other option, CRE filed suit on Garisto’s behalf.
“It is well-settled that the government cannot banish speech from public places just because others dislike it,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “Courts have repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment does not tolerate evicting speakers from public parks during public festivals.”
Center for Religious Expression is a servant-oriented, non-profit 501(c)(3) Christian legal organization dedicated to the glory of God and the religious freedom of His people. For more information, visit http://www.crelaw.org