Wheaton students sue Chicago

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: free speech and evangelism.

Four Christian students are suing the city of Chicago. They say the city is restricting their right to free speech. WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen has the story.

AUDIO: [Sound from Chicago]

ANNA JOHANSEN: I’m in downtown Chicago, right in the middle of Millennium Park. It’s a 28 acre public green space that attracts more than 3 million tourists every year. On one side: Lake Michigan. On the other: The reflective silver blob known as ‘the Bean.’

There’s an older couple sitting under the trees nearby. Their names are Tim and Jan. I ask what they would think if someone approached them here in the park and started talking about religion or politics.

TIM: Well, it’s a public place. They should feel free to offer an opinion or a leaflet or whatever and I have the choice to ignore it if I choose.

Jan disagrees.

JAN: I wouldn’t like it. I don’t feel it’s right for anyone to impose their religion upon anyone else. I think there should be some limitations.

And those two opinions represent the two sides of a court battle…over free speech…in Millennium Park.

Four students from Wheaton College are suing the city of Chicago.

EMERSON: Hi, I’m Gabriel.

SWART: Matt. Nice to meet you.

HOOD: Caedon.

CHONG: I’m Jeremy. Nice meeting you.

They claim the city is violating their right to speak in a public place.

All four of the students used to come to Millennium Park on a regular basis. They’d bring a sign saying “free prayer.” Sometimes they would preach or hand out gospel tracts. Sometimes they would just walk up to a person and ask to talk.

But in December, a park security guard told them they weren’t allowed to do any of that. The students got multiple warnings over the next few months. And in April, the city of Chicago adopted new rules for the park.

MAUCK: You can’t come and speak and you can’t distribute literature. Those are vague rules, but they’re also overly broad because this is a public park. This is where everybody ought to be able to shake hands, talk, to have street drama, to pray.

That’s attorney John Mauck during a recent news conference at the Bean. Mauck’s firm is representing the Wheaton students.

The new rules divide Millennium Park into 11 “rooms.” In 10 of those rooms, you’re not allowed to make speeches or hand out printed material.

But Mauck says the park is still a public area and the city can’t restrict free speech just by calling it a “room.”

MAUCK: It’s an attempt to say this is an indoor building where you can’t come and talk freely…but that doesn’t make sense. It’s open air. It’s an open park.

And the Constitution protects free speech in public places.

The new rules prohibit all conduct that interferes with a visitor’s “peaceful enjoyment” of the park. Mauck says that opens the door to a “Heckler’s Veto.” Anyone annoyed by a speaker could potentially shut them down just by complaining.

BOOTH: By that terminology, anyone could get shut down.

Brittany Booth works for the law firm that’s representing the students. She points out that Christians aren’t the only ones affected by the new rules.

BOOTH: A Muslim talking about their religion can get shut down. Anyone talking about politics can get shut down. And that’s why we need to protect the first amendment so people can agree to disagree, but like speech is allowed no matter what.

Student Gabriel Emerson said the end goal is to uphold free speech, but they also have another hope.

EMERSON: And I hope through us doing this, we’re able to encourage more Christians to stand up and proclaim the gospel wherever they are. Whether it’s in their homes or on their street corners, or even in Millennium Park.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Chicago, Illinois.

(Lara Farhadi / Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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