By First Liberty’s Lea Patterson, Associate Counsel, and Chris Freund, Director of Media Relations
While Russia and the United States have been dominating the headlines, a recent news story reporting a threat of police action against a citizen because he dared share his faith in public raises the specter of the old Soviet Union.
Alas, it’s not happening in Volgograd, but in middle America.
According to news reports, a local school threatened to contact police to prevent an Illinois man from offering free Bibles outside a school.
The La Harpe Community School District, located about 90 miles west of Peoria, ordered the unnamed community member to refrain from distributing Bibles after receiving a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In its letter, FFRF demanded that the school prohibit anyone from distributing Bibles on school property. But the school wasn’t handing out Bibles — a private citizen was, and on what he thought was a public street, not in the school building. Nevertheless, FFRF’s letter demanded that the school stop the citizen.
There’s some dispute over which government entity — the city or school — owns the road where the individual was handing out Bibles. Until recently, the city owned and maintained the road that bisects the grade school campus. Many in the community view it as a city road, but the school district claims the property as its own. But this is where FFRF misses the mark — it doesn’t matter whether the city or the public school owns the road and its sidewalks.
As the Supreme Court clarified in its 2014 opinion in McCullen v. Coakley, public sidewalks “occupy a special position in terms of First Amendment protection.” They have “immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” As a result, neither public school nor city officials can limit anyone’s ability speak on the sidewalk because they dislike the speaker’s message.