A local minister, with the help of Davis Levin attorney Matt Winter, has prevailed in his First Amendment battle with Maui County when they agreed to drop their appeal in a free speech case.
The case began in 2013 when Strat and Doreen Goodhue were asked by Maui police officers to move as they handed out religious pamphlets. The couple was on a public sidewalk just outside the entrance to the local fair. Law firm Davis Levin Livingston and the American Civil Liberties Union represented the couple in their lawsuit against the county.
Davis Levin attorney, Matthew Winter noted in early 2014 that the sidewalk is public space where expression of opinion is protected by the First Amendment. He added that the couple did the right thing in obeying the officers’ commands to move but that the commands were unconstitutional.
In announcing on Nov. 19 that the county had dropped its appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, representatives of the ACLU Hawaii office called the settlement a victory for free speech. As part of the settlement, the officers of Maui’s police department will undergo three years of specialized training on First Amendment protections in public spaces.
As a response to the lawsuit, the county sued the fair organization, whose insurer will pay court costs along with damages.
Couple Ordered to Move From Public Space
In October 2013, the Goodhue’s were legally passing out religious-oriented literature and were not being disruptive when a police officer asked them to move elsewhere. At the time, the two were standing on a sidewalk — which is public property — near the local fair, a private event that had hired Maui police officers to help with security.
When the pastor asked another officer whether the request was supported by the law, the officer responded affirmatively and added that, in fact, the couple could be removed from other nearby public sidewalks if they continued handing out their literature.
The Maui officers had ordered the Goodhues to leave the area, including not just the immediate vicinity of the fair but also other nearby sidewalks, on orders from fair organizers. The couple did as they were asked but later sought legal advice from the ACLU and Davis Levin Livingston, who filed a lawsuit in federal court shortly after the incident.
The First Amendment applies even when an organization has procured a permit for use of a park, sidewalk or street if the area continues to be open to the public.
Pat Wong, counsel for Maui County, took issue with the plaintiffs’ characterization of the incident and defended the officers. In a statement, he said the Goodhue’s were blocking the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to step out into the street. The couple was asked to move and did so voluntarily, he asserted.
Fundamental Rights to be Protected
Following the announcement of the settlement, pastor Goodhue noted that he and his wife are pleased with the result of the case. Residents and visitors to Maui now can “exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” he stated.
Attorney Winter, of Davis Levin Livingston, noted that the treatment of the Goodhue’s by police was wrong and that the county and its officers have a “sworn duty” to protect everyone’s right to free speech. He said the plaintiffs are hopeful that the renewed focus on free-speech rights and the additional required training for officers will mean that fundamental rights will now be protected.
The sidewalk constitutes public space, Winter stated, adding that the law protects the rights of anyone to express opinions there. He added that the government may impose limits on the place, time, and format of speech for the purpose of protecting public safety but is not entitled to simply deny the constitutionally protected rights of demonstrators who are not breaking the law. He said the purpose of the case was to ensure that such incidents do not recur.