Judge drops charges against First Amendment-wielding sidewalk preacher

Thursday, October 26, 2000

A Philadelphia municipal judge this week dismissed charges against a
New Jersey man who was arrested, handcuffed and detained in a police car for
nearly an hour after police officers ordered him to stop his sidewalk preaching
— and he countered by flashing the First Amendment.

Judge Craig M. Washington dismissed the charges of disorderly conduct
against William Romansky, 45, of Pennsville, N.J., who had been arrested on
July 31 during the Republican National Convention as he attempted to spread his
sidewalk pastoral message to passersby on South Street in Philadelphia.
Although the GOP convention opened that day, Romansky’s lawyer said the
incident was “very far away — almost in another city” from the sports
arena where the Republican faithful were gathering to select their presidential

Michael McTigue represented Romansky at the request of the Liberty
Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense organization
headquartered in Orlando, Fla. He said Judge Washington heard no testimony in
the summary offense proceeding and threw the case out after about five minutes
of discussion. The prosecution had requested a continuance in the case because
the arresting officer was on vacation, but McTigue objected.

“I said our position is … there’s nothing that [Romansky] did
that violated the disorderly conduct statue, and, in fact, his actions were
protected by the First Amendment,” McTigue said.

“God bless him, the judge said, ‘It seems to me he did not intend to
break this law. His intent was to preach the gospel. That being the case, the
case is dismissed.’ “

Romansky, who works at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in Salem
County, N.J., about 35 miles from Philadelphia, has been engaging in sidewalk
preaching for 25 years. On the day he was arrested, both Romansky and his
21-year-old son were standing, Bibles in hand, on a sidewalk on South Street, a
trendy area in southern Philadelphia that is a popular hangout for young

“He stands peaceably on the side of the sidewalk, not to interfere
with foot traffic, and he just preaches the gospel,” said McTigue. “He preaches
it above the general noise level around him but not enough to make a

“He was preaching on a public sidewalk. He wasn’t being disruptive,”
agreed Mat Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel.

“The police officer first came and said he needed to move out of the
area, (to a location) a block away where there were no people,” Staver

When Romansky did not move, the officer then asked Romansky whether he
had a permit.

“He said, ‘Yes, it’s in my left pocket here.’ The police officer
reached in (the pocket), and ironically, he pulled out a pocket-sized edition
of the Constitution,” Staver said. Romansky then told the officer his permit
“is right there under the First Amendment.”

The officer responded by arresting Romansky, handcuffing him and
forcing him to sit for nearly an hour in the back seat of a police car, McTigue
said. He was finally released when he signed a citation accusing him of
disorderly conduct.

“Above male was observed by police standing in the middle of the
sidewalk ‘preaching’ to passersby,” the citation read. “Male was yelling at
passersby causing them to stop to see what the commotion was. The defendant was
asked to cease his actions and leave the area. Male refused and continued his
actions which caused passersby to see what the commotion was.”

Romansky’s son “stopped preaching when his father was arrested because
he didn’t want to be arrested,” McTigue said, “so I guess the police succeeded
in chilling some speech.”

Romansky’s wife, Jean, said her husband was “thrilled to death” that
the judge threw out the case and that he intends to resume his sidewalk
ministry shortly. Romansky had not been preaching since his arrest, she

“The First Amendment protects the rights of all individuals who have
messages to share on street corners,” Staver said. “Religious speech is fully
protected under the First Amendment. We are pleased that the judge recognized
this fact and upheld Mr. Romansky’s right to preach on the street corner.”

However, Staver said his group intends to file a federal lawsuit
against the Philadelphia police department for violating Romansky’s civil

“I think that the judge is absolutely correct, but there’s no written
opinion, and tomorrow, the police officers could go out and harass someone else
for doing the same thing,” Staver said. “The prosecutors certainly wanted to
prosecute the case, and the police officers certainly wanted to arrest

If that case is filed, the courts may feature an interesting

A few hours before he was arrested on South Street, Romansky and his
son were preaching on the sidewalks of Broad Street in center city. Along came
a sleek black limousine on its way to the GOP convention hall. The limo pulled
to a stop, and the man in the back seat rolled down a window and called to
Romansky and his son.

“He introduced himself as Brother Jerry Falwell,” said Jean Romansky,
“and said it’s so good to see you.”

Falwell shook their hands, told them to “keep up the good work” and
drove off. But after Romansky was arrested, he contacted Falwell’s office, and
the televangelist put him in touch with Staver and the Liberty Counsel.

“We were actually going to bring Dr. Falwell to trial to have him
testify on what he observed Romansky doing,” Staver said.

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