Ordinances requiring people to obtain permits before they may distribute leaflets or make speeches at city parks have been struck down by a federal judge. Ruling on a lawsuit brought by preachers protesting gay pride activities, U.S. district judge William W. Caldwell said Monday that Harrisburg, Pa.'s ordinances requiring permits hindered protesters' free-speech rights without serving any government interest. But Caldwell refused to find that the city had misused the state's disorderly conduct statute in arresting the protesters when they got out of hand.
The nine plaintiffs filed suit against Harrisburg and the city's mayor, Stephen R. Reed, earlier this year following a two-year string of incidents in which they clashed with authorities, mostly at gay pride events. The first incident occurred at a June 2000 ceremony to honor Civil War dead. Protesters objected because Reed had signed a proclamation that the group interpreted as praising the contributions of gay citizens. Four protesters, carrying signs that read, "Proof That America Condones Sodomy," sang hymns and handed out leaflets during the event. Accounts differ over what happened when they confronted the mayor, but the four were arrested and cited for disorderly conduct. The charges later were dismissed. In subsequent gay pride events, protesters banged drums and used megaphones to yell at people.
While the protesters never sought a permit, they said the procedure for obtaining one violated First Amendment rights. Caldwell agreed that the permit process infringed on their right to free speech. "While [the ordinance] covers only two First Amendment activities, literature distribution and speeches, these represent important First Amendment rights that [the ordinance] would broadly limit," the judge wrote.