PORTLAND — The Portland city government acknowledged recently that a street preacher’s civil rights were violated in a city park, and he is now seeking monetary damages in a federal lawsuit.
As reported by The Oregonian, Mark Mayberry of the southwest Oregon town of Riddle is seeking $307,443 in damages in the suit filed Oct. 25 in U.S. District Court in Portland. His lawyer also wants a federal judge to penalize the city for disregarding a previous court order that protects street preachers.
Mayberry says the city deprived him of his free speech rights when one of the park officers last June 1 ordered him to leave Tom McCall Waterfront Park and issued a citation barring him from coming to the park for 30 days.
Mayberry is a Christian evangelist and activist who travels around Oregon to call for the abolition and criminization of abortion in the United States.
At the time he was cited at the Portland park, Mayberry was holding a sign defending the unborn, passing out related tracts, and engaging people in conversations about abortion and the gospel. When the park officer ordered him to leave, Mayberry refused, asserting that he had a constitutionally protected right of free speech.
In addition to the citation, the city also charged Mayberry with violating an ordinance by refusing to obey the officer’s orders, and also with violating a state harassment statute.
But the lawyers for Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute who are representing Mayberry appealed the whole matter to the city’s auditor’s office. The institute specializes in religious freedom cases. They argued that Mayberry’s actions didn’t fit the Oregon law’s definition of harassment. That statute specifies harassment as using insulting or abusive language and acting in a way that is likely to provoke a violent response — a far cry from Mayberry’s peaceful actions, they contended.
A July 11 hearing was held at which no city representative showed. In addition to opening and closing statements from Pacific Justice Institute-affiliated lawyer Ray Hacke of Salem, testimony was heard from Mayberry as well as from Mason Goodknight of Roseburg, a fellow street evangelist who also had been preaching at Waterfront Park when Mayberry was there.
After the hearing, city Hearings Officer William Guzman ruled that the park officer’s issuance of the citation had indeed violated Mayberry’s free speech rights under both the state and federal consitutions, and Mayberry’s exclusion from the park was then declared invalid.
Guzman further found that Mayberry did not commit harassment. Guzman pointed out that Waterfront Park is a public forum and that the government’s ability to restrict speech in a public park is extremely limited.
However, even though Mayberry has been cleared to resume his outreach in the park without fear of penalty, he has not done so. Hacke said that is because of “well-founded” fears that Mayberry will be cited again.
In the lawsuit, Hacke acknowledged that May-berry’s views were no doubt controversial to some who heard him speaking in the park, but that his speech and conduct were not incendiary and merited protection under the law.
Hacke additionally wrote that the city’s action also directly violated a 2006 order by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving another street preacher, Edward Gathright, who had been ejected by the city from events both at Tom McCall Waterfront Park and Pioneer Courthouse Square.
In that order, the federal appeals court upheld a permanent injunction prohibiting Portland from removing speakers engaged in lawful free speech from a public square.
Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, said the city auditor made the right call in exonerating Mayberry, but that the city government should nevertheless expect to face consequences for the city’s unlawful actions toward him.
Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve declined comment to The Oregonian regarding the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.