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Freedom of expression or disorderly conduct?

August 13, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
What's the dividing line between freedom of expression and disorderly conduct? Should a graphic sign on a truck be enough to get you charged in a city court? How about waving signs and shouting at a busy intersection?

Earlier this week, the pastor of a Wisconsin anti abortion group was arrested by Williston police for disorderly conduct. Matthew Trewhella, pastor of Mercy Seat Christian Church, was charged $150 in court costs and another $150 to have the truck towed, according to Jim Soderna, a representative of the Missionaries to the Preborn. The charges will be dismissed if Trewhella stays out of Williston for three months.

Soderna also told a reporter for The Minot Daily News that the charge was based on graphic imagery on the group's truck. He also claimed that this was the first time in the group's travels across multiple states that they have run into legal trouble because of the truck.

According to the story in today's Minot Daily News, the group, Missionaries to the Preborn, was in the state on Monday to support Measure 1, which would change North Dakota's constitution to state, "The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected." The group went door to door and waved signs at intersections while they were in Minot. It wasn't clear what they did when they were in Williston, though Soderna told the reporter, "If something is offensive, it doesn't mean you are allowed to arrest that person. You still have free speech rights."

According to a municipal court clerk in Williston, Trewhella was charged with violating a city ordinance against disorderly conduct. Williston City Ordinance 12-43 reads: "No person shall make or assist in any riot, improper noises or disturbances or shall be guilty of any disorderly, indecent, immoral or insulting conduct, language or behavior, and no persons shall collect in bodies or crowds in the city for unlawful purposes, to the annoyance or disturbance of the citizens or travelers, or commit any act constituting a breach of the peace."

Cities have a clear interest in promoting law and order, but laws and city ordinances forbidding disorderly conduct must also not be overbroad or used to discourage lawful protest or expression. What do you think of the pastor's arrest for disorderly conduct?


Article Comments

Sep-09-14 10:27 AM

What an egregious violation of the 1st Amendment! Abortion is PUBLIC POLICY and is protected by law, therefore the way one best protests it and brings truth and information to the table is by doing exactly what these people did- publicly displaying what "choice" really is. If a picture display of abortion is "too graphic" or "offensive" then perhaps we should all be asking ourselves why it is legal instead of violating the 1st amendment rights of people who would seek to peacefully expose abortion for the carnage and barbarism that it is.

Abortion is common and legal and as long as it is protected by law, there is nothing gratuitous about displaying what it is that our country's laws are protecting. In fact, it is absolutely crucial that people be allowed to express themselves in this manner. If they don't there will never be any honesty or public awareness on this topic.


Aug-17-14 10:14 AM

Just off the top of my head, I remember that the ACLU has taken on cases supporting students' right to pray in school as long as it is initiated by the student or to wear T-shirts with a religious theme. The ACLU's website probably lists some of the other cases they've taken on in recent years.


Aug-16-14 8:43 AM

Look back when the ACLU was founded in Berkeley, Ca. by two Marxists and it has not changed much since then. To make the statement that it is fair is simply myopic.

When they do decide to advocate for a conservative issue it is for looks only. I'd be generous to say it is unbalanced by say 10 to 1 in favoring liberal causes over conservative ones.


Aug-15-14 11:06 AM

I actually do think the ACLU would probably take their case if the protesters decided it was worth the hassle. The ACLU has taken on cases from both sides of the political aisle. But civil rights lawsuits take both time and money and a lot of aggravation, so a lot of people in this situation will probably just pay the fine or settle and get out of Dodge the way the city leaders want them to.


Aug-15-14 9:02 AM

JackAaah just summarized your question succinctly but often an act of civil disobedience, is so common place these days. Most people are getting tired of it all in America.

How many times has the Very Rev. Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton been arrested? Or a Jane Fonda desiring attention.

Can't always blame the Police. Most of the time that the arrested are begging to get arrested.


Aug-14-14 1:44 PM

Do you have any comments on whether the pastor should have been charged with disorderly conduct or on the ordinance itself?


Aug-14-14 9:59 AM

I'm sorry Jack but our post of yesterday reminds me that the "Women of Wal*Mart" had better stay away from the Oil Patch.

I wonder how they would be charged in Willytown?


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