Charges against a street preacher accused of "tumultuous" behavior for preaching in public near Princeton University's restaurant row were dropped in court, said a religious freedom law group Monday.
Lawyers for The Rutherford Institute said they successfully defended Michael Stockwell during his appearance before the Princeton Borough Municipal Court for a citation for his use of amplification while preaching. The charge was later modified to disorderly conduct, which applies to "violent or tumultuous" behavior.
TRI said Stockwell's use of a small amplifier to make himself heard over the street noise did not constitute tumultuous behavior and was protected by the First Amendment. Stockwell was found not guilty.
"The First Amendment does not permit free speech to be conditioned upon how others feel about the message," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "As former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black recognized, 'The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands.'"
On Saturday, October 8, 2011, a small group of Christian street preachers including Stockwell attempted to speak about their religious beliefs near the historic eating clubs near Princeton University, stated TRI.
"Prior to engaging in this free speech activity, Stockwell reviewed the local noise ordinance and contacted the local police to make sure that he could use a small amplifier to make himself heard over the street noise," TRI stated. "Stockwell was assured that there would be no problem with his use of a small amplifier, provided he was not blocking the sidewalk. However, when the street preachers began preaching with the amplifier in a public right-of-way on Prospect Avenue, police ordered them to turn the device off because the police department had received a complaint about their preaching."
Lawyers for Stockwell said that he explained to police that he had already cleared the use of the amplifier with the police department. He complied with the police's order anyways, TRI said.
"The street preachers then resumed preaching, without the aid of an amplifier to make themselves heard over the noise of the eating clubs, only to be approached by another police officer, who allegedly claimed that they were 'scaring' people with their message and ordered the preachers to vacate the public right-of-way.
Stockwell was issued the disorderly conduct citation.
TRI attorneys entered a not guilty plea in the Princeton Borough Municipal Court. During the trial, Institute attorneys asked that the disorderly conduct charge be dismissed on the grounds that Stockwell's religious message was protected by the First Amendment. His lawyers also took issue the citation for disorderly conduct on the basis of the content of his speech, "tumultuous or not."
According to its website, the Institute's mission is twofold: "to provide legal services in the defense of religious and civil liberties and to educate the public on important issues affecting their constitutional freedoms."