Four Wheaton College students are requesting changes to a restrictive speech code affecting Chicago’s popular Millennium Park after the city blocked them from preaching or distributing Christian literature there.
Set on the site of a former industrial wasteland in the heart of Chicago, the 24-acre park is a gathering place, performance venue, and public art installation not only for Chicagoans but also for more than 3 million tourists who visit each year. In addition to hosting the Cloud Gate, the famous shiny sculpture better known as “The Bean,” the park is also a prime location for street evangelists, including students from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, as well as other advocates of political, social, or religious views—all of whom have, until recently, had free run of the outside areas of the park.
The city of Chicago adopted new restrictions on April 2 dividing the park into several outdoor “rooms.” The new rules severely limit speech-making and literature distribution, only allowing them on sidewalks and in Wrigley Square, which includes the Millennium Monument. All conduct is prohibited if it interferes with a visitor’s “peaceful enjoyment of a performance or amenity.”
Dividing outdoor, public space into “rooms”—albeit ones without walls or roofs—is both “novel and unconstitutional,” attorney John Mauck, who represents the Wheaton students, told me, adding, “A public park epitomizes a public space. You have all the other places that are off-limits to the evangelist—hotel lobbies, restaurants, department stores, and office buildings—so free speech and evangelism are pretty much restricted to sidewalks and public parks.”
In a letter sent May 16 to Mark Kelly, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Mauck asked the city to drop the new rules, which he argues essentially create a “heckler’s veto.” Anyone annoyed by a speaker could effectively shut down the speaker by complaining.
Mauck also asked the city to not limit free speech to certain “rooms” or require permission for free speech activities. “Is not the use of ‘rooms’ just a back-door approach to allow Park District officials the authority to limit First Amendment rights?” he wrote.
Nate Kellum, chief counsel for the Center for Religious Expression and an expert in First Amendment law, thinks so. He told me that trying to set up limited speech zones in a park is “totally foreign to free speech jurisprudence,” adding, “A traditional public forum, like a park, street, or sidewalk cannot be reclassified on a government whim.”
Kellum also said it is unconstitutional to require people to obtain permission to speak or hand out literature. “This type of restriction could be appropriate on some other kind of government property, like the grounds of a post office or public university, but not in a public park recognized as a place uniquely suitable for open discourse,” he said.
Mauck said that if the city did not respond positively to his letter, he would file a federal lawsuit. “We think this is important because if you can crack down on public parks and make them into so-called “rooms,” you’ve really shut people out,” he told me.
Why did the city enact the restrictions? “Light has come into darkness, but people loved darkness instead of light,” Mauck said, quoting John 3:19. “But, I doubt they would say that.”
But the Wheaton student evangelists have plenty to say. Jeremy Chong, one of the students, told me that his “biggest concern is not getting revenge against those who harassed us but a passion for the souls of other people.” The sophomore, who is studying to be a pastor, said he simply “wanted people to know about Jesus Christ.”