A friend and I go to Main Street in our small town to witness almost every Saturday evening. We mostly speak to people who stand in front of the bars smoking. It’s a difficult place to witness, because the vast majority of people are there for the purpose of sinning, but there is a wide variety of responses to our presence. Some people thank us for talking to them; some yell at us and call the police.
Last March, there was such an occurrence. There was a couple who we had attempted to talk to the previous week, but were only interested in arguing, so we decided not to talk to them anymore. Sure enough, they were standing there on the sidewalk that next week, and we didn’t talk to them or attempt to give them a tract. They seemed content to ignore us as well, until a police car drove by. The lady then ran out into the street and flagged down the cop.
The cop called us over and told us we couldn’t have religious conversations here. We didn’t have the right to offend anyone, she said, and we should leave. We politely disagreed with the officer while two other officers arrived. We discussed the freedom of speech and the First Amendment for about 10 minutes before my friend asked for the sergeant on duty to be called. A few minutes later, he arrived. At this point, there were five police cars with their lights flashing, but only four officers. Their response seemed a little bit silly. We continued discussing the freedom of speech with the sergeant, who we expected would see things our way. However, that wasn’t the case.
After several more minutes of trying to reason with the officers, the sergeant said that if the lady that flagged down the original officer wanted to press charges, we were going to be arrested. Thankfully she chose not to press charges, but the police informed everyone standing there that if they ever wanted us to leave, all they need to do is call the police, and we would be forced to leave. The sergeant told us that if we keep it up, we’re headed for jail time.
That pretty well freaked me out, and we considered going to discuss the matter with the chief of police. We also contacted Liberty Counsel, a pro-bono Christian group of lawyers who work with religious liberties issues. They were extremely helpful. They advised us against talking to the chief, because without an attorney, we would most likely end up bargaining away some rights, such as agreeing not to open air preach (because we almost never do). But there could of course come a time when open air preaching would be the appropriate thing to do.
The Liberty Counsel lawyer wrote a letter citing case law, and sent it to the officers and the chief, the city attorney, administrator, and city council members. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the day the letter was faxed, the chief issued a memo to the department saying that if they got a call complaining about people on the street witnessing, they wouldn’t even respond to the call unless there was a crime being committed. Since that day last March, I don’t really have any idea how many people have called the cops on us, but the police have never responded again.
So, it’s a happy ending. I think the police were just uninformed about free speech law, because they rarely have to deal with Christians who are sharing their faith.
Last month (three months after the whole thing blew over) we went to talk to the chief of police, just to show him we’re regular, sane guys, who just happen to have a weird hobby. He was nice, and wanted to protect our rights, but mentioned that he was offended to get a letter from a Virginia lawyer telling him how to do his job. I didn’t mention that I was offended to be threatened with arrest. It was a pleasant meeting, and we just wanted him to be comfortable that while we may be doing something most people don’t do, we’re really not the troublemakers.