PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal appeals court to reinstate a First Amendment lawsuit involving two street preachers who were charged with trespass and obstruction of justice and arrested for allegedly refusing police orders to cease proselytizing at a Princeton train station. In coming to the defense of evangelical preachers Don Karns and Robert Parker, Rutherford Institute attorneys are challenging as discriminatory an alleged policy by the New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJTC), enforced by the NJTC police, that requires religious speakers to acquire a permit in order to engage in non-commercial speech at the station while waiving the requirement for political speakers. In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Institute attorneys argue that the trial court erred in ruling that the police officers did not clearly violate the First or Fourth Amendment rights of the street preachers.
“This case sheds light on a disconcerting bureaucratic mindset that wants us to believe that the government has the power to both bestow rights on the citizenry and withdraw those rights when it becomes necessary, whether it’s the right to proselytize on a train platform, the right to address one’s representatives at a city council meeting, or the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Yet those who founded this country believed that our rights are unalienable, meaning that no man or government can take them away from us. Thus, the problem in this case is not the absence of any specific law allowing free speech on the train platform. Rather, the problem is government officials who have forgotten that they work for us and their primary purpose is to safeguard our rights.”
On June 26, 2012, evangelical preachers Don Karns and Robert Parker went to the Princeton Junction Station of the NJTC and began sharing their Christian beliefs with others at the station. No notices were posted at the station that engaging in First Amendment expression was in any way restricted at the station. Upon arriving at the station, NJTC police officers Kathleen Shanahan and Sandra McKeon Crowe demanded identification from Karns and Parker, informed the preachers that a permit was required in order to engage in non-commercial speech, and ordered them to cease preaching in the absence of a permit. Karns and Parker asserted the train platform was a public area and that they had a First Amendment right to engage in speech there. Parker also attempted to record the interaction with the police using his cell phone, but was ordered to stop doing so by the officers. The preachers were subsequently arrested and charged under New Jersey law with defiant trespass and obstructing an investigation. They were eventually acquitted on all of the charges. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed suit against the police and the NJTC accusing them of violating the First Amendment preachers’ rights, discriminating against them based on the religious content of their speech, and violating their Fourth Amendment rights by arresting them without probable cause. Attorney F. Michael Daily of Westmont, N.J., is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Don Karns’ and Robert Parker’s First Amendment rights.