A Tennessee man was peacefully distributing Christian literature
in front of an Oakland, Tenn., post office when he was arrested for
trespassing. At the request of the postmaster, Michael Choate was
arrested for handing out tracts on a public sidewalk 40 feet from the
entrance of the building.
Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a lawsuit Friday against the
United States Postal Service for the unconstitutional treatment of
Choate. The ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys
and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely
live out their faith.
“Christians shouldn’t be arrested and silenced for peacefully
sharing their beliefs on public property,” says Nate Kellum, ADF
senior counsel. “The post office isn’t above the law and cannot
take away citizens’ constitutionally protected rights just because
it or its customers might not agree with the content of someone’s
speech or literature. Our client isn’t harassing anyone; he’s
simply desiring to quietly share his faith in a completely public
Choate handed out tracts for two weeks in July 2010 in front of
the Oakland post office without incident. He continued his peaceful
activity on the public sidewalk about 40 feet from the building’s
entrance the following month, and was approached by Postmaster
Terrena Moore. Moore ordered him to leave the property and threatened
him with arrest. Choate tried to calm the postmaster down and said he
would wait for the police.
Two police officers arrived within minutes. They ordered him to
leave and said he would be arrested for trespassing if he refused.
Choate asked how he could be arrested for trespassing on public
property, and the officers indicated that if the postmaster says a
person is trespassing on postal property, that person is trespassing
and must leave.
Choate, however, believed he still had the right to express his
beliefs on public property and did not leave, so he was arrested on
criminal trespassing charges, which were later dropped. He ceased his
activities after the incident.
Several weeks later Moore pointed to a provision against
“disturbances” and told Chaote that some customers were annoyed
by his behavior.
Last November ADF attorneys send a letter to the USPS on Choate’s
behalf, explaining that he has the constitutionally protected right
to distribute literature on public property in front of the post
office and requesting assurance that he be allowed to continue his
activities. The following month, a USPS attorney stated that
under the provision cited by Moore, Choate would not be allowed to
distribute literature if he “tends to impede or disturb Postal
Service employees or customers….”
ADF attorneys contend in their lawsuit that the provision
unconstitutionally gives postal employees “unbridled discretion to
prohibit peaceful literature distribution anytime they or a customer
finds Choate’s message or viewpoint objectionable.”
Garry J. Rhoden of Memphis, one of more than 2,000 attorneys in
the ADF alliance, is assisting with the lawsuit Choate v. United
States Postal Service, which was filed with the U.S. District
Court for the Western District of Tennessee, Western Division.