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Free-speech rights come into question

The Mesa/Tempe Tribune/June 21, 1992, by Phil Boas

The same week riots broke out in Los Angeles, a roving band of demonstrators moved up and down Tempe’s Mill Avenue bearing placards and shouting slogans.

Young people making their weekend exodus to one of the Valley’s most popular night spots saw the demonstrators from a distance and yelled their approval, “YEAH, RODNEY! LAPD STINKS!”

But as they got closer, they began to hear clearly the words of the demonstrators, and almost comic comprehension seized them.

These weren’t demonstrators protesting the Los Angeles Police Department and the Rodney King verdict, these were street preachers protesting sin and degradation on Mill. And the targets of their angst were the same teenage toughs and long-haired college students who had mistakenly cheered them on.

“THIS WORLD IS GOING DOWN!” shouted one preacher. “LET JESUS COME IN AND SET YOU FREE!”

As organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have attacked Tempe’s recent efforts to restrict guns and gang regalia on Mill, another battle over individual liberties is taking place on the thoroughfare every weekend.

Lay preachers from The Door Christian Fellowship church in Tempe are gathering in groups as large as 50 to deliver a kind of in-your-face brand of evangelism that has angered young crowds.

Tempe police find themselves weighing the church members’ right to free speech against the rights of individuals who get annoyed by the loud, hellfire delivery.

This year police have cited and released four Mill street preachers on suspicion of disorderly conduct. And now the accused are preparing to challenge those citations as a violation of First Amendment rights.

“We do think it’s a free speech question,” said Phoenix attorney Doug Drury, who is representing the preachers on behalf of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to protesting First Amendment and family rights.

“Mill avenue on Friday nights is a pretty raucous place,” said Drury. “There’s usually a band playing. I don’t believe they’ve ever cited a band for being too noisy. We’re talking about people speaking without amplification. I can hardly see how that is bothersome on Mill.”

But it is annoying, say customers and employees at some of Mill’s outdoor cafes and restaurant patios.

Laura Fay, 21, who works the outdoor espresso counter for the Coffee Plantation at Sixth Street and Mill, complained to police that she could not hear her customers’ orders because the preaching was so loud.

She “also said she is of another religion and that (the) preaching offended her, as she couldn’t just leave to stop listening,” according to Tempe police reports.

Officers issued a disorderly conduct citation to Robert Dodd because his exhortation, “people are dying and going to hell and need to be saved,” was too loud, reports indicate.

Some church members speculate privately, however, that they are the targets of selective enforcement because of their message.

The Door is an evangelical Christian faith that was founded in the mid-1970’s in Prescott. Church members are strikingly clean-cut and out-spoken in their beliefs. They condemn abortion, sex outside marriage, and alcohol and tobacco use.

Almost every weekend on Mill, church members exercise two core beliefs. First, that Christians must carry the gospel to the world and second, that people are saved by grace alone. Thus, the church is urging young people on Mill to accept Christ to secure their own salvation in the hereafter.

“Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,'” said church member Paul Mosser, who was recently cited for preaching too loudly. “I believe everybody needs that message.”

The Door has taken its evangelism to Mill because on weekend nights it is filled with people who are perhaps the least receptive to the message of Christ and need it most, he said.

Officers are instructed to use restraint during clashes between the street preachers and their unwilling audiences.

“I’d like to say that if we err, we err on the side of letting them make a great deal of noise,” said Temp City Attorney David Merkel. “Our guys are pretty laid back in the sense that it’s got to be pretty noisy before they tell someone to quiet down.”

Officers are strictly forbidden to police the content of the message, he said.

Source: RickRoss.com