Street preacher topples Tenn. town’s permit rules

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A street preacher has successfully challenged a Tennessee town’s ordinance requiring permits for small gatherings on city streets. The permitting scheme in Maryville is too broad, too vague and vests too much discretion with the chief of police, a state appeals court ruled yesterday.

Wallace Scott Langford, a member of the Street Preachers Fellowship, challenged the ordinance after being cited for failing to obtain a permit when he and his two stepsons, also street preachers, proselytized at a busy intersection in Maryville.

The ordinance provides in part: “It shall be unlawful for any club, organization, or similar group to hold any meeting, parade, demonstration, or exhibition on the public streets without some responsible representative first securing a permit from the chief of police or his designee.”

In November 2008, Langford and his stepsons were preaching at a busy intersection in town when police officers warned them that they needed a permit. Langford replied that the Constitution was the only permit he needed.

Officers cited him for a violation of the town ordinance. Langford did not appear in municipal court to contest the citation and a default judgment was entered against him. However, he did appeal to Blount County Circuit Court, contending that the ordinance was too broad, too vague and gave the chief of police too much discretion to issue or deny permits.

The trial court upheld the ordinance as constitutional. Langford appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court in yesterday’s decision in City of Maryville v. Langford.

The appeals court accepted Langford’s argument that the ordinance was constitutionally flawed because it made no exception for small groups. “The terms of the Ordinance may fairly be read to include a sweeping amount of human behavior for which no permit need be sought,” the appeals court wrote.

The city argued that the ordinance was acceptable because it imposed only a small fine for violations. The appeals court rejected that argument, writing that “we are unwilling to hold that the government may curtail one’s freedom of expression with a relatively small penalty but not a harsh penalty.”

The appeals court also said the ordinance gave the police chief too much discretion and not enough guidance in making permit decisions. Additionally, the appeals court found the ordinance too vague, particularly the term “similar group,” which it called “too open-ended and subject to numerous reasonable interpretations.”

The appeals court acknowledged that the city had a “legitimate interest in preserving order and safety on its street.” But the court said that such an interest could not be furthered by an overbroad and vague law providing inadequate guidance for enforcement.

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