The Rutherford Institute has secured a First Amendment victory for a Christian street preacher who was charged with disorderly conduct and accused of engaging in “tumultuous” behavior for preaching in public near Princeton University’s historic eating clubs. Appearing before the Princeton Borough Municipal Court in defense of street preacher Michael Stockwell, Institute attorneys pointed out that Stockwell’s purely religious message, his preaching on a public right-of-way in Princeton, N.J., near the historic University eating clubs, and his use of a small amplifier to make himself heard over the street noise did not constitute tumultuous behavior and were protected by the First Amendment. Stockwell was found not guilty.
“The First Amendment does not permit free speech to be conditioned upon how others feel about the message,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “As former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black recognized, ‘The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands.’”
On Saturday, October 8, 2011, a small group of Christian street preachers including Michael Stockwell attempted to speak about their religious beliefs with passersby near the historic eating clubs near Princeton University. Prior to engaging in this free speech activity, Stockwell reviewed the local noise ordinance and contacted the local police to make sure that he could use a small amplifier to make himself heard over the street noise. Stockwell was assured that there would be no problem with his use of a small amplifier, provided he was not blocking the sidewalk. However, when the street preachers began preaching with the amplifier in a public right-of-way on Prospect Avenue, police ordered them to turn the device off because the police department had received a complaint about their preaching. Although Stockwell explained that he had already cleared the use of the amplifier with the department, he complied with the police’s order. The street preachers then resumed preaching, without the aid of an amplifier to make themselves heard over the noise of the eating clubs, only to be approached by another police officer, who allegedly claimed that they were “scaring” people with their message and ordered the preachers to vacate the public right-of-way. When the street preachers refused to stop preaching, the police issued Stockwell a citation for his prior use of amplification—a charge that was later modified to Disorderly Conduct, which applies to “violent or tumultuous” behavior.
In coming to Stockwell’s defense, attorneys with The Rutherford Institute entered a not guilty plea in the Princeton Borough Municipal Court. During the trial, Institute attorneys asked that the disorderly conduct charge be dismissed on the grounds that Stockwell’s religious message was protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, Institute attorneys took issue with Stockwell being cited for disorderly conduct on the basis of the content of his speech, “tumultuous” or not. Stockwell was found not guilty and the charges against him dismissed. Affiliate attorney F. Michael Daily, Jr. assisted The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Stockwell.