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Street tirades may be illegal

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 4 2004 6:31 a.m. MST

Following a Monday meeting with Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan, Mayor Rocky Anderson said he thinks the city can censor some of the infamous street preaching that goes on near LDS Church headquarters downtown.
In the "next couple of days," Anderson said, the city will produce a document detailing what sort of speech, words and decibel levels are constitutionally protected and what speech the city can prohibit. Following the release of that document, Anderson said he will recommend to the City Council some "fairly minor revisions" of city ordinances governing free speech.
The changes come several months after Anderson — dismayed by what he considers boorish behavior by street preachers — asked Rutan to examine the city's rules governing free speech.
Rutan, along with Deputy City Attorney Boyd Ferguson, briefed Anderson Monday after examining between five and 15 city ordinances that govern various aspects of free speech, including the city's ordinance on disturbing the peace.
"We are taking a look at ordinances that potentially impact free speech," Rutan said.
For years now, Christian street preachers have descended on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters during semi-annual conferences and other church events to preach against the LDS faith. In recent years, street preaching has become more controversial with reports that the preachers have called LDS women "whores" and "harlots."
After his meeting with Rutan, Anderson, himself a former civil rights attorney and ex-American Civil Liberties Union of Utah board member, said that language is likely illegal — not protected by the Constitution.
Calling someone's mother, wife or new bride a "whore" or "harlot," Anderson said, would likely be considered part of the so-called "fighting words doctrine" — a body of case law explaining that certain speech is not protected by the First Amendment. These are words that are so inflammatory they are reasonably likely to incite another person to violence.
"The concern that I had arose when I first heard accounts of so-called street preachers yelling at new brides that they are whores and harlots and telling children that their mothers are whores and harlots," Anderson said. "That kind of speech is very likely not constitutionally protected and would be considered fighting words."
This past October, during the church's general conference, two conference attendees were incited to violence after street preachers donned sacred religious clothing worn by LDS faithful. The two men were cited for assault and theft after ripping the clothing off the preachers.
But Anderson said the Constitution likely protects the preachers' ability to wear such garments. It would be similar to protections on flag burning, he said.
"While it induces outrage in a lot of people, the First Amendment seems to protect against restrictions of that sort of thing," the mayor said.
Lonnie Pursifull, head of the Utah chapter of the Street Preachers Fellowship, said any efforts to curb preachers' speech would be met with legal action. Preaching, Pursifull said, is protected as "religious speech" under the Constitution. Pursifull said he only calls LDS women "spiritual whores" for "following after another God and another Jesus."
"(Anderson) can look at tightening any laws he wants. I guarantee it won't stand up in federal court," Pursifull said. "The only reason he's doing it is because of the Mormon Church. It's the Mormon Church that's pushing his buttons and telling him what to do. He's being led around by the nose by the Mormon Church."


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com

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