Indiana Police Guided Against Prohibiting Street Preaching

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has issued a new legal bulletin, advising officers not to prohibit street preaching or the distribution of leaflets.

The mission statement of the IMPD "demonstrates commitment to the enforcement of laws while respecting individual rights," the bulletin reads. "Those individual rights include the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows citizens to express their views and beliefs in public forums – including public sidewalks, pubic parks and streets. This may take the form of speech, passing out leaflets and carrying signs, among other activities."

Liberty Counsel had negotiated the language of the police department's legal bulletin. The Christian legal firm was aiming to clarify the free speech rights of street evangelists after a group of Christians were being regularly stopped by law enforcement.

In one instance, John Jacob and a group from the Good Messengers of Northwest Indiana were questioned by police when they were distributing tracts earlier this year during the NCAA Final Four. Though they were on a public sidewalk, "well outside the stadium property," according to Liberty Counsel, two police officers accused them of illegally soliciting on private property.

The group was told that the NCAA secured a six-mile "restricted zone" around Lucas Oil Stadium and distribution of anything was prohibited. The police further accused the group of being vendors, which was barred without permission of the event organizers.

Liberty Counsel contended that the law was being improperly applied.

While the City-County provided the NCAA a "restricted zone," where no vendors were allowed within a three-mile radius of the stadium, that cannot be used to silence noncommercial, religious activity, the legal firm argued.

The City-County's attorneys agreed with Liberty Counsel's assessment of the law and said they have educated their police on the rights of evangelists.

Applauding the city for "realizing their error," Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, commented, "The beauty of our Constitution is its protection of religious activity. Many times local law enforcement officials are misinformed about their duty to protect freedom of speech and religious expression."

As stated on the IMPD legal bulletin, officers are now informed that "speech expressing one's religious beliefs or speech protesting or supporting a particular point of view is not speech for an advertising purpose, and therefore, does not violate the noise ordinance. No permit is necessary when a citizen is utilizing an amplification device. Religious preaching and evangelizing are not deemed to be forms of advertising or soliciting for the purposes of the First Amendment."

"Leafleting is considered one of the least intrusive forms of free speech and is therefore more protected," it adds.

The bulletin also notes the limitations to expressing one's views in a public forum. The street preacher occupying a sidewalk should not create a physical obstruction to other citizens using the sidewalk. Officers are advised, however, to first warn the street evangelist if he or she is creating "an unreasonable hindrance" before making an arrest or issuing a citation.