Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 | Author:

Greenville, NC – Today, Liberty Counsel is filing a federal lawsuit against the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, alleging that the state policy used by park officials to threaten citation of members of Grace Baptist Church violates their right to freedom of speech. Liberty Counsel represents Pastor Tony Rivers and other church members in the case against the state of North Carolina, Lewis Ledford, Director of the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, and several park officials.

While several members of Grace Baptist Church of Wilson gathered at Fort Macon State Park, playing group games, swimming in the ocean, and having a picnic, they shared about Jesus Christ with some park visitors before leaving. They also offered cold bottled water, consistent with Jesus’ statement in the book of Mark: “For whoever gives you a cup of water in my name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Park Ranger Crocker approached the group and explained that they were not allowed to communicate with others unless they first obtained a permit. Pastor Rivers was given a warning and told that if it continued, they would be cited for a park rule violation.

The park rule cited by the park ranger is Title 15A Section 12B.1105 of the North Carolina Administrative Code, which states: “A person shall not hold any meeting, or exhibitions, perform any ceremony, or make any speech, unless he has a permit.” There is a minimum $30 fee for any such permit. There are no written criteria or time limits for approving permit applications.

Liberty Counsel sent a demand letter to Parks and Recreation Director Lewis Ledford, informing him of the unconstitutional treatment, asking that the policy be changed, and asking for an apology for Ranger Crocker’s actions. Director Ledford’s response defended the permit requirement. The rule does not define “meeting,” “exhibition,” “ceremony,” or “speech,” and requires that no matter how small the group, even if only one, the person desiring to speak must first obtain a permit.

Mathew D. Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented: “Permits for speech are prior restraints on speech, and in most cases such restraints are unconstitutional. It makes no sense to require a single individual to obtain a license to speak to another person in a public park. Prior permits stifle spontaneous speech. Of all places, public parks are places where speech should flourish and where it has historically received the highest protection. This prior permit policy is indefensible.”

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