Brian Johnson, Pride Fest Bible hander-outer, files federal lawsuit over "no pride zone" policy [UPDATE]

A dispute that has been ongoing for years recently escalated: Notorious Bible hander-outer Brian Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against the Minneapolis Park Board, alleging that his constitutional rights are violated by the Twin Cities Pride Festival's "no pride zone" policy.

That policy, endorsed by the Park Board, means advocacy groups whose message isn't approved by Pride Fest organizers are confined to a small space near 15th & Lyndale in Loring Park, barred from handing out materials to the broader festival.

In court documents, Johnson's Alliance Defense Fund attorneys argue that park board rules "banning literature distribution in Loring Park... violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment."

Johnson, of Hayward, Wisconsin, has handed out Bibles at Pride Fest for years. In 2009, he was denied a booth, showed up anyway to get his message out, and was arrested. The next year, the Park Board approved Johnson's request to be in the park, but said he'd be arrested if he's disruptive. Last year, Pride Fest organizers and the Park Board penned Johnson in with the new "no pride zone" policy, prompting the federal lawsuit.
In a 2010 City Pages profile, Johnson said his Christianity-promoting activities at the Pride Fest are not about confrontation. "I just want to shake someone's hand, look them in the eye, and tell them Jesus loves them," he said.

Johnson says his message isn't anti-gay, but rather pro-Jesus.
Johnson says his message isn't anti-gay, but rather pro-Jesus.

Johnson says in court documents that over his years at Pride Fest, he's "come across many individuals in the GLBT community who have expressed disdain and distrust for organized religion, and [I want] those individuals to know the real Jesus."

In previous years, when the legal battle was between Johnson and Pride Fest organizers, attorneys for Pride Fest cited a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held private organizations with a permit to use a public street for expressive purposes cannot be compelled by the government to include a group whose message contradicts the organizer's.

Pride Executive Director Dot Belstler clarified that anybody, including Johnson, can "walk through the park and say what they want." Belstler said Johnson and other advocates of causes Pride deems inconsistent with their mission are simply banned from handing out materials outside of the "no pride zone," which this year, fittingly, will be renamed the "Minneapolis Park and Recreation area."

But Johnson's attorneys argue that the government "should not be exiling free speech, it should be protecting it."

Said Nate Kellum, an attorney with the Defense Fund:

It's ridiculous to say that the only place where people can hand out Bibles is an area where there's no one to hand Bibles to. The Constitution simply does not permit the board to relegate free speech to isolated regions where no one can receive the message. That's not free speech at all. It's pure censorship.

Johnson is seeking a judgment that the Park Board's "no pride zone" policy is unconstitutional and an affirmation that he can freely distribute literature during the festival. He's also seeking nominal damages for the violation of his constitutional rights in 2009 and 2011.

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