An evangelical minister from New York has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that his rights to free speech were violated by Princeton Borough Police and officials in 2011 when he was proselytizing Princeton University students on Prospect Avenue.
The minister, Michael Stockwell, is no stranger to conflicts with police over his street preaching. His clashes with police are detailed in a blog called “The Arrested Preacher” that also lists other cases. Stockwell has sued the cities of Philadelphia and Syracuse, New York over free speech issues similar to the Princeton incident.
Stockwell, who is being represented by Westmont lawyer Michael Daily, Jr. has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the Borough’s noise ordinance. The ordinance makes it unlawful for anyone to “make, continue or cause to be made or continued any loud, unnecessary or unusual noise or any noise which endangers the health, safety or welfare of the community, or which annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of others within the borough.”
The ordinance also forbids the use of an amplifier or other instrument that makes noise above 55 decibels after 8 p.m. unless the person has a permit.
Stockwell and other ministers were preaching on Prospect Avenue on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 on the public sidewalk in front of some private eating clubs. Princeton University students were having parties at some of the clubs, music could be heard from the sidewalk, and some students were drinking alcohol, according to Stockwell.
Stockwell and his group of preachers began using a small amplifier to make themselves heard. Part of the message they preached to the students, according to the suit, was “that drinking and fornication were sinful and that people should repent in order to be saved through the grace of Jesus Christ.”
Students called the police several times to complain that the preaching was disturbing them. A police officer told Stockwell a permit was required for the amplifier, so the preachers turned the amplifier off, according to the suit.
Stockwell and his group continued to speak without the amplifier. People either crossed to the north sidewalk of Prospect Avenue prior to approaching the group or engaged in argumentative discussions with the group, and students continued to call the police to complain about the preachers. A sergeant arrived on the scene, told the preachers to lower their voices, and ordered the police officer to issue a summons to Stockwell for violating the Borough’s noise ordinance because he did not have a permit for the amplifier. Stockwell and his group stopped preaching after receiving the summons and left Princeton.
Later that month, the noise ordinance charge was dismissed and Stockwell was charged with a more serious offense of intentionally engaging in disorderly behavior for the purpose of causing annoyance in violation of a state statute by “yelling, shouting and being disruptive to the citizens of Princeton.”
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated, provided the legal defense for Stockwell in 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. Institute attorneys took issue with Stockwell being cited for disorderly conduct on the basis of the content of his speech. Stockwell was found not guilty and the charges against him were dismissed.
Stockwell is now seeking damages to cover his attorney fees, which total more than $15,000. He is seeking travel expenses, and claims he lost income because he had to travel to Princeton and appear in court several times. He also claims he suffered emotional distress including emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of the enjoyment of life as a result of the case.
The lawsuit also calls on the United States District Court in New Jersey to throw out the Borough noise ordinance. Stockwell’s lawyer argues in the lawsuit that the ordinance lacks objective standards to guide officials about what constitutes noise that annoys or disturbs the peace, and that the ordinance “permits the suppression of protected speech by a heckler’s veto.” The lawyer also argues that the noise ordinance is a violation of the First Amendment because the noise volume limitations, although objective, restrict, restrain and inhibit a substantial amount of expressive activity that is protected by the First Amendment.