Evangelist Tried For Trespassing

An evangelist ticketed by police twice in March for handing out leaflets too close to the front of SMG-operated  in Lincoln, Neb., got his day in court. 

Photo: Huskers.com

At a bench trial June 18, Larry Ball testified that his purpose was to hand out the gospel of Jesus Christ and that he thought he was on a public sidewalk, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

“Peter was arrested for about the same reason,” he said of the disciple. “We must obey the Lord before the word of man.” Ball admitted that at the time he was aware of the policy adopted by SMG. The facility sits on land owned by the city and the West Haymarket Joint Public Agency, but the area out front is partly public and contracted to tenants for their use and for people to be able to come and go easily, said arena GM Tom Lorenz.

Lorenz said that during a March 5 state basketball tournament, Ball was seen in the plaza area passing out pamphlets. Lorenz said he took the policy out to Ball and asked him to move to the public sidewalk. When Ball refused to leave, an off-duty Lincoln officer working at the arena contacted police, the Journal Star reported. Lorenz, Ball and police officers who eventually cited him that day, and again two days later, agree he was 30 feet or so away from the arena’s doors.

That is within a restricted area defined by planters and bollard posts where leafleting, picketing and soliciting are not allowed without the permission of the tenants. Ball argued the area in question is a sidewalk, not a plaza as designated, and he wasn’t violating policy.

Ball filed a civil lawsuit against Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, Police Chief Jim Peschong and SMG, alleging they violated his First Amendment free speech rights, according to the paper.

In April, Chief U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp refused to stop SMG from enforcing the policy, finding that Ball wasn’t likely to win with his claim that the plaza area is a traditional public forum. Smith Camp dismissed Beutler and Peschong from the civil suit earlier this month. In the criminal case, Lancaster County Court Judge James Foster will decide if Ball is guilty of trespassing after the attorneys in the case turn in closing arguments by brief in July, the Journal Star said.