Judge rules in favor of Wheaton College students barred from evangelizing at park

Attorney John Mauck speaks during a press conference about a legal complaint filed on behalf of four Wheaton College students at Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois on Sept. 18, 2019. | Mauck & Baker, LLC

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Wheaton College students who were barred from evangelizing in a downtown Chicago park must be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights until the legal dispute is resolved. 

Judge John Robert Blakey, an Obama appointee, ruled in favor of four students who attend the evangelical higher education institution. Blakey granted a preliminary injunction against a set of rules that govern the city’s 24-acre Millenium Park. 

The student plaintiffs are part of the Chicago Evangelism Team sponsored by the Wheaton College Office of Christian Outreach with the mission of proclaiming the Gospel “in the city of Chicago to whomever we find there.” The group often meets on Friday nights to travel downtown to share the Gospel.

In September, the students filed a lawsuit, stating that they were barred by security from evangelizing at Millennium Park, which hosts a range of activities from concerts, dance performances, theater and other shows throughout the year.

The students sought an injunction against the park’s stated rules. Among other things, the park bans “disruptive conduct” and “passing out of written communications.”

In his order, Blakey argued that the city prohibits “reasonable forms of expression in large areas of the park” and that the city’s defense of the park policy “rests upon its misapplication of the government speech doctrine.” 

“The City contends that, by curating art and programming, it exercises permissible government speech making its restrictions immune to First Amendment attack because the rules further such government speech,” the judge wrote. “This Court rejects the City’s flawed reading of this important doctrine.” 

According to the judge, the government speech doctrine recognizes that “the government may also engage in speech and that the First Amendment does not regulate government speech as it does private speech.”

Blakey explained that courts apply the government speech doctrine in two limited contexts. One context, the judge wrote, is when the government itself speaks. The second, he added, is when the government appropriates public funds to transmit a message through private speakers. 

“Neither of those situations are present here,” the judge noted in the order. “This case does not involve the appropriation of public funds to transmit a message through private speakers. Nor do movants challenge the government’s own speech.”

The plaintiffs’ argued that the government’s ban limits their ability to engage in “protected activity.”

“The government speech doctrine is inapplicable where, as here, the relevant question concerns whether the City’s rules unconstitutionally restrict private speech on public property,” Blakey wrote. 

He set a status hearing for March 4. 

Plaintiff Gabriel Emerson said the Wheaton student group is “thankful” to have their speech protected at Millennium Park. 

“[We] look forward to preaching the Gospel there in the days to come,” Emerson stated. 

John Mauck, an attorney representing the students, said in a statement that the ruling “benefits anyone who wishes to exercise their First Amendment rights in a traditional public forum, regardless of the political, religious, or ideological content of their message.”

“We are thankful to God for this legal protection and our request to Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot is to desist the City’s misguided efforts to prevent people from freely expressing and exchanging ideas in Millennium Park,” Mauck said. 

Mauck’s firm, Mauck & Baker, LLC, defends churches, religious institutions, businesses and individuals.

A hearing for the case was held on Nov. 8 in which the executive director of the organization that runs Millennium Park agreed that behaviors such as taking a selfie, wearing a funny hat and even talking too loud might be considered violations of the park’s “disruptive conduct” rule. 

The park’s executive director stated in court that even handing a book to a friend could be a violation of the park’s rules barring the passing out of written communications, according to Mauck & Baker. 

While the lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of the four students — Matt Swart, Jeremy Chong, Caeden Hood and Emerson — former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of clients prevented from circulating referendum petitions to park visitors. 

After Quinn intervened, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a cease and desist letter to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly after anti-Trump activists were barred from protesting in the park. 

A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department declined to comment on Blakey’s ruling when contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times

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