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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?
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