Utah city suspends enforcement of "free-speech zone" ordinance after lawsuit

SALT LAKE CITY Fri Sep 14, 2012 3:37pm EDT

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SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A northern Utah city has temporarily suspended enforcement of a "free-speech zone" ordinance on Friday after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit claiming the law unconstitutionally restricts the right to free speech.

The ACLU sued Brigham City earlier this week on behalf of the Main Street Church, a non-denominational faith barred under the municipal statute from distributing pamphlets on some sidewalks near a new Mormon temple in town.

In a statement issued on Friday, attorneys for Brigham City said city officials agreed to suspend the ordinance through Saturday in return for a promise that the church limit its presence to four members per block and not disrupt traffic or block visitors from accessing the temple.

The agreement was negotiated Thursday afternoon, the statement said.

On August 18, Main Street Church Pastor Jim Catlin sought a permit to publicly distribute religious-themed literature on the sidewalks surrounding a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple during a month-long open house for the new building, according to the lawsuit.

A city permit issued to Main Street had limited access for the group between August 21 and September 15 to three areas on lesser-trafficked sidewalks and capped the number of permitted pamphleteers at four.

A second application seeking unlimited access to city streets for literature distribution was denied outright by city officials, who cited general security and traffic concerns.

Passed in 2010, the city's ordinance requires protesters or demonstrators to seek a permit for an established "free-speech zone" in order to pass out literature or engage in other forms of public expression.

A permit, if granted, can include limits on time, location and numbers of participants. Violations are punishable by civil fines of up to $750 or a misdemeanor criminal prosecution that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.

A federal court hearing set for Friday on the church's request for a temporary restraining order barring enforcement of the ordinance was canceled. But the agreement will not halt the lawsuit filed on Tuesday on the church's behalf, ACLU Legal Director John Mejia said in a written statement.

"Main Street Church and the ACLU of Utah have not conceded that any past enforcement of the ordinance was constitutional," Mejia said. "They also continue to contend that the ordinance is unconstitutional on its face and that is should be completely struck down by the court."

Brigham City is a predominately Mormon community of about 18,000 people, roughly 60 miles north of Salt Lake City.

City leaders contend that they support the First Amendment right to free speech and say the ordinance was driven by public safety concerns. The law is based on other Utah municipal ordinances, the city's statement said.

"The city maintains that its Free Speech Zone Ordinance meets all constitutional protections while advancing its compelling interest in public safety," the city said it its statement.

(Editing by Mary Slosson and Eric Beech)

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