Preacher Ordered Away From Bus Stop


A county judge in Pennsylvania has issued a ruling ordering a street preacher to stay at least twenty yards away from school bus stops. The preacher was proselytizing school children as they waited for their school buses, but the school and concerned parents went to court to prevent him from doing so. You can see the full ruling here.

The preacher, Stephen Garisto, would hand out tracts and Bibles to students and sometimes get into confrontations with them. One student reported that he called them a “heathen” and many students said they were scared of him. Their parents were rightly concerned about an adult hanging around school bus stops. He would also use incentives to get them to listen to him, like handing out hot chocolate on cold mornings.

The court essentially ruled that this was not a public forum for the purposes of the First Amendment:

Reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions in these fora are enforceable, however, as long as they are “content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” Restrictions of speech on all other public property (“nonpublic” fora) are enforceable as long as they are reasonable and “not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.” …

For this and all of the reasons set forth above, I find that the forum in question – school bus stops on residential sidewalks when utilized by students to board and de-board school buses – are nonpublic fora. Therefore, I will apply the reasonableness test in assessing whether the limits which the School District seeks to place on Defendant’s access to the bus stops pass constitutional muster.

As a general rule, I am virtually a free speech absolutist. And the courts have rightly protected the right of street preachers to preach on public sidewalks. But this is not a typical public sidewalk. The children are a captive audience and the school and parents clearly have a reasonable concern about adults hanging around the talking to the kids. The restriction is neutral, of course — the school would be just as concerned about any adult hanging around, regardless of the message.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    Ed concludes:

    this is not a typical public sidewalk. The children are a captive audience and the school and parents clearly have a reasonable concern about adults hanging around the talking to the kids. The restriction is neutral, of course — the school would be just as concerned about any adult hanging around, regardless of the message.

    I would argue the parents rights here is not required to order this man away from the close proximity of these children. In this case the right of these children to not hear speech overwhelms this preacher’s right to speak, as it should given Ed noting they’re a captive audience in this specific case. I also bring this up because we continually encounter, wrongly, people arguing we don’t have a right to not hear speech when we most certainly do, even in some cases where that right is obligates the government to protect that right over the speaker.

  2. coragyps says

    What the hell? It’s not like a Man of the Cloth would ever possibly do something that should cause parental concern to an innocent….

    Oh. Nevermind.

  3. ArtK says

    To me, this is an Establishment clause case. Had the judge allowed the preacher to continue, it would have amounted to the government implicitly endorsing his speech, since they were providing a captive audience. This is no different than bringing a youth pastor to speak in the cafeteria.

  4. Ben P says

    To me, this is an Establishment clause case. Had the judge allowed the preacher to continue, it would have amounted to the government implicitly endorsing his speech, since they were providing a captive audience. This is no different than bringing a youth pastor to speak in the cafeteria.

    I think there’s a plausible establishment clause argument but it’s not a winning one because he’s in a public forum.

    It’s a bit like the “ok, we’ll make the Christmas nativity scene not an establishment clause violation by allowing private citizens to set up whatever they want on the lawn of the courthouse.”

    That elimiantes the establishment clause problem but does not eliminate the free speech problem if the reality is that only the nativity scene is allowed, but the flying spaghetti monster isn’t.

    Here, if the government allows a preacher, but does not allow someone else to speak to children on the sidewalk, that could be an establishment clause violation as to the children or a free speech violation as to the other speakers.

    But attempting to prohibit the preacher as well creates a free speech question where there’s a public forum and whether any time place manner restrictions are acceptable.

  5. ArtK says

    @ Ben P

    My take is that it’s not truly a public forum, at least for the time period where those kids have to be there. There are other precedents for treating a school bus stop as an extension of the school.

  6. Ben P says

    @ Ben P

    My take is that it’s not truly a public forum, at least for the time period where those kids have to be there. There are other precedents for treating a school bus stop as an extension of the school.

    True, but that gets very messy, very quickly.

    How far away from the bus stop can the preacher be? is he prohibited from speaking or merely from interacting with children? What times is he prohibited? If you’re specifically prohibiting religious speech you have a lot of messy questions to answer.

    You reach the same result with a cleaner answer, just regulating “no individuals shall engage in public speaking or distribution of literature within 100 feet of a school bus stop when children are present..” Nice, neat time place manner restriction and content neutral.

  7. uncephalized says

    It seems to me that one of the criteria for establishing a public forum rationally must be that its occupants are free to leave if they do not want to hear the speech. Children are not free to leave and therefore it is not a public forum, and so restrictions are perfectly reasonable in order to protect the rights of the children to free association, etc.

  8. says

    This behavior is creepy and predatory. Shouldn’t this guy be preaching to people who actually have power to make decisions based on the “information” he has to offer? This wanker is trying to take advantage of kids who aren’t mature enough to make reasoned judgements or stand up for their own best interests. Just another creepy con-artist imposing on kids because he can’t deal with adults.

    I would argue the parents rights here is not required to order this man away from the close proximity of these children.

    The “parents’ rights” argument may have been a political necessity here. “Freedom of (or from) religion” alone might not have carried enough weight with Christians who see nothing unusual in ministers yammering away at just about anyone.

  9. says

    This has to be argued as an issue of child safety. If the plaintiff argues this as an Establishment Clause case, the easy solution becomes (as with nativity scenes) to allow all faiths equal access to the school children.

    And that would be horrible.

  10. eric says

    The restriction is neutral, of course — the school would be just as concerned about any adult hanging around, regardless of the message.

    Indeed – and “I have no message at all, your honor” would probably evoke more concern than any particular message.

    Ben P:

    You reach the same result with a cleaner answer, just regulating “no individuals shall engage in public speaking or distribution of literature within 100 feet of a school bus stop when children are present..”

    Isn’t that basically what he did? The 20-yard rule sets up a precedent which will likely have the same practical effect as your regulation.

    As for finding it a nonpublic fora during the time its used by the schools, that seems (IMO) perfectly consistent with how we treat other public fora. Billy Graham is welcome to take a bullhorn down to a Central Park field and speak…but not if U2 has rented that field out for a concert. The school is basically reserving/renting bits of sidewalk (an otherwise public fora) for a few minutes per weekday.

  11. says

    I’m ambivalent, but I think a minimum distance is appropriate for child safety and to reduce the captive audience effect. I won’t be surprised if he gets a bullhorn or something in response. I do wonder what better solutions there might be. I’d rather the preacher find a less questionable way to spread his message, but fundies are the sort who love to push the limits when they aren’t outright violating them.

  12. thalwen says

    I think a time, place, manner restriction is appropriate. It is a captive audience of children and the school has a right to make sure that students have safe access to bus stops free from harassment.
    It also seems creepy as hell. A grown person hanging around a school bus stop to harass kids and handing out treats.

  13. frog says

    Consider if it was a complete stranger going up to these children and saying, “Hey, kids, stay in school and get yourself a good education. Here’s some information you might find interesting,” and handing them a pamphlet showing how education correlates to future earnings and good health.

    I submit that would be just as creepy. Who the hell is this talking to my kid? I don’t care what he’s saying–children are taught not to talk to strangers, and strangers shouldn’t talk to children.

    The issue is not the specific speech; it is the appropriateness (or rather, lack of) in an adult cornering young people and speaking to them without parental (or loco parentis) permission.

  14. iknklast says

    In a similar case in our city, the city council simply caved in, and actually got rid of their disturbing the peace ordinance. So now the preacher, should he decide to return, has free rein to stand on the sidewalk outside the college and call women sluts and shout in their faces, accosting them with pamphlets and making a nuisance of himself (and this is a religious college; I wonder what he does at public schools, where the girls have the bad judgment to choose a secular education?)

    I wish he would come back. I could take up residence right beside him, equipped with literature from the FFRF (non-tracts). They certainly couldn’t charge me with disturbing the peace. Apparently peace is now outlawed here.

  15. martinc says

    The court said:

    Therefore, I will apply the reasonableness test in assessing whether the limits which the School District seeks to place on Defendant’s access to the bus stops pass constitutional muster.

    This of course is a legal decision. To win in the court of public opinion against the fundies however, one needs to apply not the ‘reasonableness test’ but the ‘Islamness test': how would you like it if a Muslim preacher did the same thing?

    Case closed, your honor.

  16. Michael Heath says

    Me earlier:

    I would argue the parents rights here is not required to order this man away from the close proximity of these children.

    Raging Bee responds:

    The “parents’ rights” argument may have been a political necessity here. “Freedom of (or from) religion” alone might not have carried enough weight with Christians who see nothing unusual in ministers yammering away at just about anyone.

    You’re probably right, and if so, that’s more validation of how we have a long ways to go when it comes to better protecting children’s superior rights relative to more privileged classes like parents.

  17. says

    This is a ‘creepy old dude harassing minors’ case, not a free speech case, and the fact that he happened to be flapping his gums at the time doesn’t change that.

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