JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Three men are suing the City of Johnson City claiming that the city infringed upon their freedom of speech and right to freely exercise their religion during last year’s TriPride festival and at another event in 2014.
The lawsuit claims the city’s “special event policy” violates the First Amendment of the Constitution and also accuses Johnson City police officers of violating plaintiffs’ rights by enforcing the policy.
The policy states that permits are issued for street closure and roadblock requests for special events. It defines special events as “any organized street festival, commercial block party, road race, parade, or fundraiser road block that is open to the public, whether a ticketed event or a non-ticketed event, held wholly or partially on City owned or maintained property.”
The plaintiffs claim that on September 7, 2014, they were sharing their religious message outside Rotary Park during a pride event when police officers arrived and told them their activity was illegal because it was creating a disturbance. A JCPD sergeant told the group no one was allowed to speak in the direction of the pride event and threatened to issue citations, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs say the police sergeant returned with the director of the pride event, who told the group they would be allowed to speak in their direction if they used their casual voices. The group allegedly left 10 minutes later.
The lawsuit also claims the city violated the plaintiffs’ rights during the TriPride festival on September 15, 2018. The plaintiffs say they were “peacefully sharing their Christian message” on a public sidewalk and park that were open to the public at the time, but required passing through a security checkpoint to access. They say a police lieutenant told them if they preached in the park, police would ask them to leave at the request of the event organizers. The lieutenant then told them they were required to leave the festival area and threatened to arrest them if they returned, according to the lawsuit.
In court documents, the plaintiffs say the city’s policy, as applied, “unconstitutionally attempts to convert the City’s streets, sidewalks, and parks from traditional public fora into a nonpublic forum during Special Events conducted in the City.”
The lawsuit asks the court for a permanent injunction against the policy.
In response to the lawsuit, the city issued the following statement:
The City has been made aware of a lawsuit filed against it that claims certain First Amendment free speech rights were violated during the TriPride Parade and Festival on Sept. 15, 2018.
The plaintiffs are individuals who were seeking to further their religious, political, and social beliefs.
The City understands the constitution protects the rights of citizens who peacefully assemble, including those seeking to persuade others who may not share the same point of view. However, freedom of speech is subject to time, place and manner limitations.
The City is currently investigating the legal complaint filed against it and will not make any further public comment until the investigation is complete.