A county judge in Pennsylvania has issued a ruling ordering a street preacher to stay at least twenty yards away from school bus stops. The preacher was proselytizing school children as they waited for their school buses, but the school and concerned parents went to court to prevent him from doing so. You can see the full ruling here.
The preacher, Stephen Garisto, would hand out tracts and Bibles to students and sometimes get into confrontations with them. One student reported that he called them a “heathen” and many students said they were scared of him. Their parents were rightly concerned about an adult hanging around school bus stops. He would also use incentives to get them to listen to him, like handing out hot chocolate on cold mornings.
The court essentially ruled that this was not a public forum for the purposes of the First Amendment:
Reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions in these fora are enforceable, however, as long as they are “content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” Restrictions of speech on all other public property (“nonpublic” fora) are enforceable as long as they are reasonable and “not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.” …
For this and all of the reasons set forth above, I find that the forum in question – school bus stops on residential sidewalks when utilized by students to board and de-board school buses – are nonpublic fora. Therefore, I will apply the reasonableness test in assessing whether the limits which the School District seeks to place on Defendant’s access to the bus stops pass constitutional muster.
As a general rule, I am virtually a free speech absolutist. And the courts have rightly protected the right of street preachers to preach on public sidewalks. But this is not a typical public sidewalk. The children are a captive audience and the school and parents clearly have a reasonable concern about adults hanging around the talking to the kids. The restriction is neutral, of course — the school would be just as concerned about any adult hanging around, regardless of the message.
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