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Evangelist barred from '14 Irish Fair sues St. Paul

ST. PAUL-David Miller wanted to preach to Irish Fair crowds last year. But he wasn't allowed to enter the event, he said. He claims his First Amendment free-speech rights were violated and has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Paul,...

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ST. PAUL-David Miller wanted to preach to Irish Fair crowds last year.

But he wasn't allowed to enter the event, he said.

He claims his First Amendment free-speech rights were violated and has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Paul, police Chief Thomas Smith and Cmdr. Patricia Englund.

"What the law recognizes, what the Constitution provides, is that speech can be regulated by reasonable time, place and manner restrictions," said Miller's attorney, Nathan Kellum, who works for a Memphis, Tenn.,-based group called the Center for Religious Expression.

"But what the city did here, as far as Mr. Miller's speech is concerned, is to say that he could not speak at that time at the festival in any manner," Kellum said. "The problem is, it was just a flat ban."

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St. Paul City Attorney Samuel Clark said he was reviewing the lawsuit but couldn't elaborate. "We will be responding to the lawsuit, and we intend to defend the city's actions," Clark said.

A spokesman for the police department declined comment, citing active litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Miller, who describes himself as "an evangelical Christian who frequently expresses his beliefs and convictions to others in public due to religious conviction," joined a few friends outside the entrance to the Irish Fair about 11 a.m. Aug. 9. The annual event is on Harriet Island, on the east bank of the Mississippi River just south of downtown St. Paul.

Miller said he intended to enter the fair - a free event open to the public and held on public property - to share his religious views "through signage, literature, open-air speech, and conversation."

It's unclear whether Miller and his friends had begun preaching while they were standing outside the fair. But the group members were wearing expressive T-shirts and holding literature, Kellum said.

"So anyone who wanted to guess could surmise what they were going to do," he said.

As they stood outside the event, preparing to go in, a St. Paul police officer "asked what the group was protesting," the lawsuit said. A group member said they weren't protesters and that they planned to enter the fair to preach, according to the suit.

Englund then joined the conversation and "abruptly put an end to those plans," the suit claimed.

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Englund told Miller and his friends that because the Irish Fair had a special-event permit, they could make the rules, which included banning protests, the suit said. Englund told the group they were not welcome, the suit said.

"Here's the deal," Englund told the group, according to the lawsuit. "I understand what you're trying to do. But again, this is an event put on by the Irish Fair of Minnesota. This is their event. This is not your event."

One group member reportedly video-recorded the conversation with officers.

Miller contends that his banishment from the event, before he entered and engaged in the speech he wanted to, violated his rights.

"It really had nothing to do with any actual disruption," Kellum said. "It was a simple matter of they did not want the speech there."

Teresa Nelson, legal director for ACLU of Minnesota, said that people do not have a First Amendment right to be disruptive but that others also do not have the right to "impose a prior restraint just because you think maybe something is going to be disruptive."

Nelson said the issue of free speech during events on public property "has been percolating" in courts in recent years.

"The courts are slowly starting to say, 'No, you can't issue a permit or license to one group at the exclusion of the views of others,' " she said.

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A notable case involved the Twin Cities' Pride festival at Loring Park, where festival organizers essentially banned Brian Johnson a Hayward, Wis., taxidermist who was handing out Bibles. The case, which also involved the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, wound its way through the courts and the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that the ban was unconstitutional and that Johnson should be allowed to roam the festival and hand out Bibles.

Kellum represented Johnson in that case and has handled similar cases, he said.

"The trend I'm seeing is, frankly, we win every time," Kellum said. "Because when it's a public event and it's in a public place where people have the freedom to be, they also have the freedom to speak."

Nelson, who is not involved in Miller's suit against St. Paul, said the Irish Fair festival organizers have the right to decide what events will be a part of their event but shouldn't be allowed to regulate protected behavior in public spaces.

"You can't force the event to embrace a viewpoint they don't want to embrace," Nelson said. "But you also can't grant exclusive use of public ways that are a traditional public forum."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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