Federal judge orders Chicago to cease enforcing free speech restrictions at Millennium Park

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — People who want to pass out literature or evangelize in Millennium Park will now be able to do so after a federal judge has temporarily barred the city of Chicago from restricting free speech privileges there.

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey granted a preliminary injunction Thursday that allows people to evangelize and campaign in the park.

Blakey called the city’s rules about visitors exercising their First Amendment rights in limited areas of the park “constitutionally flawed in several respects.”

The ruling comes six months after a group of Wheaton College students filed a lawsuit against the city, saying Millennium Park rules unconstitutionally restricted their freedom of speech and their free exercise of religion in a public space.

The city has argued that Millennium Park isn’t a traditional public forum, but in his decision, Blakey shot down that argument, saying the plaintiffs have enough likelihood of succeeding in their lawsuit to warrant an injunction against the city’s rules.

“The Supreme Court expressly recognizes streets, sidewalks, and parks as traditional public forums,” Blakey said in his decision. “Traditional public forums ‘are defined by the objective characteristics of the property,’ and thus remain ‘open for expressive activity regardless of the government’s intent.’ ”

“Certainly, given the record here, the park fits the bill as a traditional public forum: it is free, open to the public, and serves as a public thoroughfare,” Blakey wrote.

“Although the city insists a curated design divests the park of its traditional public nature, this court cannot accept this characterization based upon the facts here,” Blakey wrote. “Indeed, if a ‘curated design’ were enough to transform the nature of the forum, any park with a statue could lose its First Amendment protections.”

Wheaton College’s Chicago Evangelism Team had gone to Millennium Park every Friday to evangelize and distribute free religious literature. In December 2018, while the students were passing out pamphlets, park security told the students multiple times that they were not allowed to hand out the religious material and open-air preach because it violated a Chicago ordinance.

In April, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which runs Millennium Park, updated the rules for the park. One new rule divided the park into 11 “rooms,” or sections, and prohibited “the making of speeches and passing out of written communications” in 10 of the 11 sections, according to the city’s website.

The new rules only authorized people to give speeches and hand out information in Wrigley Square and the Millennium Monument in the northwest corner of the park, as well as the park’s open sidewalks.

The attorneys suing the city argued this was problematic because it excluded people from engaging with the public near the sculpture Cloud Gate, commonly known as The Bean, which is one of the nation’s largest tourist attractions.

Throughout the court proceedings, the city’s attorneys have disputed claims Millennium Park is a public forum.

City attorney Andrew Mine told the judge during a court hearing that allowing the students to pass out literature could set a precedent that would “really change the character of the park.”

“The real issue is if this is … deemed a public forum and everything is up for grabs, you can imagine lots of people would want to hand out literature and make various sales pitches,” Mine said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Affairs did not respond to a request for comment, and the Tribune was directed to send all questions regarding the case to the Law Department. A city spokesman said “the Law Department is reviewing the ruling.”

But after the judge’s ruling, the students said they are excited they’ll be able to share the word of God at one of the Midwest’s largest tourist attractions.

“We’re very excited to see what God has done and that we’re able to share the gospel in the park,” said Matt Swart, a plaintiff and sophomore at Wheaton College.

There will be a status hearing in the case March 4.


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