Park Board supports anti-gay activist at Pride Fest

Minneapolis Park Board President John Erwin said on Tuesday that the Twin Cities Pride Festival can decide which organizations are allowed to set up booths in Loring Park during their event, but the board can't stop anti-gay activist Brian Johnson from walking through the public park and expressing his views just because Pride Fest organizers disagree with his message.

"I happen to wholeheartedly agree with the message of Twin Cities Pride. I'm gay myself," Erwin said in a statement. "But I also believe in every person's right to free speech and expression."

Johnson, a conservative Christian from Hayward, Wis., has attended Pride Fest for years, handing out bibles and telling gay folk they need to repent. Last year, he was denied a booth but showed up anyway -- and was arrested. This year, the Park Board OK'd Johnson's request to be in the park. Pride Fest organizers are seeking a court injunction barring him from the park.

They're basing their argument on a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that allowed St. Patrick's Day parade organizers in Boston to exclude GLBT marchers from taking part in the procession. In short, parade organizers paid for a permit, so they were free to decide who could march, the court said.

Pride Fest organizers in Minneapolis have leased Loring Park every year for more than 30 years for their event, including more than $36,000 in permit fees. Allowing Johnson access to Loring Park so that he can hold forth against gay folk who leased the park is a violation of that court ruling, according to William Mitchell law professor and Pride Fest co-counsel Eileen Scallen.

Here's the text of a letter sent to Pride Festival lawyers by Park Board attorney Brian Rice (for the Pride Festival's statement, click here):

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has declined a request from the Twin Cities Pride organization to prohibit an individual from expressing his views during their event this weekend at Loring Park.

"The Minneapolis Park System has long been a place and forum for demonstrations of differing public views and opinions," explained John Erwin, Board President. "The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has supported the Twin Cities Pride Festival for more than 30 years and continues to be supportive of the gay community and its celebration of pride."

Each year, the Minneapolis Park System has over 18 million user visits and hundreds of events are held in the parks.

According to Erwin, "The Twin Cities Pride organization has asked us to exclude Mr. Brian Johnson from being allowed into Loring Park to express himself during an open public event because he does not share the same message as the Pride organization. It is the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's view that it cannot restrict an individual from walking into a public park and expressing their personal views and opinions. In short, we are erring on the side of free speech unless directed otherwise by a court.

"I happen to wholeheartedly agree with the message of Twin Cities Pride. I'm gay myself. But I also believe in every person's right to free speech and expression. Asking the Minneapolis Park Board to exclude someone from a public space because they have a differing view is a dangerous precedent. Our parks and public spaces are too well loved to become places where any person or viewpoint is excluded.

"I personally think Mr. Johnson is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the God I know, but I also think he has the absolute right to be wrong."

The Twin Cities Pride permit allows the Pride organization to choose what individuals, groups and vendors may have a booth at their event. Receiving a permit to use a Minneapolis park does not allow any organization to restrict the public's access to park property, including the trails, playgrounds, picnic areas, gardens, pools or other amenities.

In 2008, Johnson had a booth at the Twin Cities Pride Festival. In 2009, the Pride Festival refused to renew his request for a vendor booth. In 2009, Johnson was at the festival and spoke from the sidewalk. He was arrested for disorderly conduct and the City declined to prosecute him.

Regarding a letter responding to a request from the Twin Cities Pride Festival to exclude "participants whose message conflicts" with the message of the event, Park Board General Counsel Brian Rice said: "I respectively disagree with the legal analysis provided by the event's attorneys. The Park Board has declined their request to exclude any member of the public from attending the Festival who does not agree with the message of the event. The Park Board will ensure that no one disrupts the event by attempting to set up an unauthorized vendor booth, or by harassing, intimidating or threatening other event attendees or by disrupting the orderly movement of people throughout the event grounds. However, the Park Board cannot pre-empt the exercise of an individual's legitimate First Amendment rights nor can it favor one individual's speech over that of another."

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