Christian sues U.S. Postal Service for arrest while distributing tracts near post office
A man is suing the U.S. Postal Service on the grounds that he was unconstitutionally arrested while distributing Christian literature on the sidewalk near the front of the Oakland, Tenn. Post Office.
Michael Choate, who is being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, was arrested last year while passing out Christian tracts 40 feet from the entrance to the Oakland, Tenn. Post office.
In his complaint, Choate said the arrest is unconstitutional and violates his First Amendment right to free speech, his right to due process of law and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Last year, on July 2010, Choate distributed tracts beside a flagpole that stands some 40 ft. from the Post Office entrance. The location does not block people going inside or outside of the Post Office.
Choate’s complaint noted that he never tried to enter the Post Office, nor to distribute leaflets inside the premises nor leave any tracts on any property of the Post Office. Neither did he disturb, nor bother the Postal Service, its customers, nor the operations of the Post Office.
Choate distributed the tracts for two weeks in July last year. Then on Aug. 6, 2010, he returned to this same spot near the flagpole at 11:00 a.m. to quietly distribute more tracts.
After an hour, Postmaster Terrena Moore walked up to Choate and told him that he had to leave, or he would be arrested. According to his complaint, “Choate tried to calm Postmaster Moore down, and explained that he would wait for the police.”
Within minutes, two policemen arrived and told Choate he had to leave because he was trespassing. Choate, pointing out that he was standing on a public sidewalk, questioned how he was trespassing. The policemen said, “[If] the Postmaster says you are trespassing on postal property, you are trespassing, and must leave,” the complaint said.
Because Choate believed he was within his rights to express his opinions on public property, he stood fast. The police arrested him, but later the criminal charges of trespassing were dropped, and he was not asked to pay a fine nor serve time in jail.
In Sept. 2010, Choate approached Moore and asked her why he was considered by her to be a trespasser. She referred him to 39 C.F.R. 232.1(e), which is a “disturbance provision.” Moore told Choate that his activities “annoyed” some customers.
In November 2010, the ADF sent a letter to USPS noting that Choate was constitutionally protected and had a right to pass out tracts on public property in front of the Post Office.
The USPS responded the following month with a letter that said if he “tends to impede or disturb Postal Service employees or customers,” he cannot distribute the tracts, Choate’s complaint noted.
Choate has charged that his First Amendment rights were violated and the Postal Service regulations are vague and not narrowly tailored, leaving interpretation largely to the discretion of its officials, which opens the door to unbridled discretion.
Finally, Choate said in his complaint that the enforcement of 39 CFR 232.1(e) inhibited his ability to exercise the rights due him under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“Christians shouldn’t be arrested and silenced for peacefully sharing their beliefs on public property,” ADF’s Nate Kellum, one of Choate’s attorneys, said in a statement.
“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 forum,” Kellum said.