By Jennifer Dobner
(Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union has sued a Utah city in federal court over a "free-speech zone" ordinance, saying the Orwellian-named measure unconstitutionally requires a permit for almost any form of public expression.
The lawsuit was filed against Brigham City on Tuesday on behalf of the Main Street Church, a non-denominational faith barred under the municipal statute from distributing pamphlets on some sidewalks near a new Mormon temple in town.
Brigham City, a predominantly Mormon town of about 18,000 people, is about 60 miles north of Salt Lake City, the state capital.
The ordinance in question requires any individual or group wishing to stage a demonstration, hand out literature or engage in other forms of public expression to seek a municipal permit establishing an approved "free-speech" zone for that activity.
The permit, if granted, can include limits on the time, place and number of participants. Violations are punishable by civil fines of up to $750 or a misdemeanor criminal prosecution that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.
"The overbreadth of Brigham City's 'Free Speech Zone' Ordinance is breathtaking," John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, said in a written statement.
"Under this ordinance, you would arguably have to apply for a permit to engage in nearly any speech in the city," he said. "The ordinance could be used to silence anyone, from two friends debating politics on the sidewalk to a missionary handing out fliers."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, asks a federal judge to declare the ordinance unconstitutional and seeks an injunction barring its enforcement.
Attorney Heather White, who represents Brigham City and its officers, declined to comment on Wednesday, saying she had only just begun to read the lawsuit's allegations.
The city said in a statement later in the day that the measure was not intended for "restricting freedom of speech, but for public and protester safety" and was based on other state and local laws believed to have been upheld by the courts.
The ordnance turns all of Brigham City "into a place where free speech, free assembly and free exercise of religion are prohibited until people are granted a special permit designating free speech zones where they are allowed to engage in those activities," the lawsuit alleges.
On August 18, Main Street Church Pastor Jim Catlin sought a permit to publicly distribute religious-themed literature on the sidewalks surrounding a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple during a month-long open house for the new building, according to the lawsuit.
Brigham City officials issued a permit limiting access for Catlin's group between August 21 and September 15 to three areas on lesser-trafficked sidewalks and capped the number of permitted pamphleteers at four, the lawsuit said.
A second application seeking unlimited access to city streets for literature distribution was denied outright by city officials, who cited general security and traffic concerns.
In a written explanation of the city's decision included as an exhibit in the court filing, the city said its initial permit had provided the church with "ample opportunity to communicate with your targeted audience and provides protection to protesters, vehicular traffic and pedestrians."
The letter also states that the city "supports and upholds the First Amendment's guarantee of the right of free expression as a fundamental element of our democratic system of government, and encourages the expression of such speech and discourse."
(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham)