A federal lawsuit was filed today, January 24, 2007, on behalf of a Jacksonville Florida man who was jailed overnight in October 2005 after publicly sharing his Christian faith. The lawsuit also asks that the city not make further attempts to block his speech while the case goes forward.
John Schaffer was arrested by Jacksonville police on October 5, 2005, after standing in a public right of way outside the Jacksonville Landing shopping center, sharing his faith in Jesus Christ, as God’s Son and Savior. Schaffer was approached by officers about his witnessing. He was told to either leave the premises or stop speaking. Schaffer refused, citing his constitutional right to speak, as any other American. The man was arrested and jailed overnight after refusing to quit sharing his faith.
“Christian speech is not second-class speech in the eyes of the First Amendment,” Alliance Defense Fund (ADF, which brought the suit) Senior Counsel Nate Kellum said on the ADF website, www.alliancedefensefund.org. He said when the Jacksonville police did not allow Schaffer to exercise his right to free speech, it “violated this fundamental constitutional protection.”
The Florida man contacted ADF for help. ADF attorneys attempted, to no avail, to correct the situation by contacting Jacksonville authorities.
According to Roger Gannam, Schaffer’s local counsel in Jacksonville, government officials have no right to single out religious speech, no matter what they think of it. He said the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office violated the rights of the Florida man by having him jailed for sharing his faith. Gannam said doing such is not a crime in America.
In the suit, John Rutherford was listed as the Jacksonville Sheriff at the time of the incident. The suit seeks injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and damages against the city, Rutherford, acting in his official capacity; and M.A. Bowles, acting in his official capacity as an officer for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
The suit challenges the restriction of speech placed on John Schaffer, and what it calls the “wrongful arrest and detention” of John Schaffer. It claims that his speech was protected in exterior common areas, perimeter sidewalks and ways of the Jacksonville Landing.
According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the man who was arrested for sharing his faith, the action is premised on “the United States Constitution, involving the Defendants’ infringement on Plaintiff’s fundamental rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection, and due process.”
According to the suit, each and every defendant was acting under municipal or state authority. The suit also claims that John Schaffer was acting peacefully when he spoke and handed out literature. It also claims that the exchanges between Schaffer and others were without conflict. It claims that he only passed out literature to those who were interested in receiving it.
The suit also claims that John Marvay, captain of Landing Security, told Schaffer he could not share his faith at the Landing. He also accused Schaffer of giving out false information. Schaffer told Marvay of his legal right to share his faith, and Marvay told Schaffer that if he did so, he would call the police.
According to the suit, it was after Schaffer went on a public sidewalk to a RiverWalk area of a public park that he was approached by several Landing security officers, and sheriff’s deputies.
According to the suit, Bowles and another officer mocked the faith of Schaffer, while he was in custody, and told him it was wrong.
The suit states that a trespassing charge against Schaffer was later dropped.
The suit also claims that Schaffer, through his attorney, on February 7, 2006, sent a letter to Rutherford, detailing how his rights had allegedly been violated by Bowles. It also claims that Schaffer sought assurances that his free speech rights to share his faith would be honored in the future. According to the suit, he has never received such an assurance.
The suit calls the arrest of Schaffer “criminal,” and said it says such an act chills him from using his free speech rights. It also claims that there is a trespass warning out against Schaffer which gives the Sheriff’s office the right to arrest him if he returns to the mall.
The Alliance Defense Fund did not have any comments from Jacksonville authorities concerning the Florida man who was jailed overnight for sharing his faith.