PJI Thwarts Portland’s Efforts to Stifle Evangelism in Public Park

Portland, OR—The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) scored an important victory for open-air evangelists in Portland, Oregon; a city with a well-earned reputation for displaying hostility toward the Christian faith.

At a hearing before the Portland City Auditor’s office on Thursday, July 11, PJI successfully defended Mark Mayberry of Riddle, Oregon, who travels around Oregon to share the gospel and call for the abolition of abortion in the United States.

On June 1, Mayberry was at Portland’s Waterfront Park holding a sign defending the unborn, passing out related tracts, and engaging people in conversations about abortion and the gospel when a park officer ordered Mayberry to leave. Asserting his constitutionally protected right of free speech, Mayberry refused. The park officer then issued Mayberry a citation excluding him from coming to Waterfront Park for 30 days.

The citation charged Mayberry with violations of a Portland city ordinance that prohibits refusal to obey a park officer’s reasonable orders and a state statute that criminalizes harassment.

“The ordinance that Mayberry was cited under declares a park officer’s order to be unreasonable if it is aimed at constitutionally protected, speech-related conduct,” PJI attorney Ray Hacke said. “Park officers are tasked with enforcing the law, which means they should know what the law is. They should certainly know better than to take actions aimed at chilling free speech.”

Oregon law, meanwhile, defines “harassment” as using insulting or abusive language or gestures intended and likely to provoke a violent response. Mayberry had not used insults or abusive language—he merely tried to engage passersby in civil and peaceful discussion.

PJI appealed Mayberry’s exclusion to the Portland City Auditor, which granted a hearing on July 11. Although Mayberry’s exclusion from Waterfront Park had expired by that date, the hearing was still necessary: unless the exclusion was invalidated, Mayberry could have been excluded from Waterfront Park for much longer if he were to be cited there again.

After hearing testimony from Mayberry and witness Mason Goodknight, who had been preaching at Waterfront Park while Mayberry passed out tracts on June 1, as well as opening and closing statements from Hacke, the hearing officer held that the park officer’s issuance of the citation had indeed violated Mayberry’s free speech rights under both the Oregon and federal constitutions. The hearing officer invalidated Mayberry’s exclusion accordingly.

Portland has gotten in trouble for trampling on open-air evangelists’ rights before: in the seminal case Gathright v. City of Portland, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a permanent injunction prohibiting the city from removing, or attempting to remove, street preachers from city parks—which are traditional public forums, where free speech is supposed to be at its freest—without probable cause.

“Federal and state law both protect Christians’ rights to express their views publicly,” PJI president Brad Dacus said. “The City of Portland doesn’t get to shut them down just because some people find their views distasteful or offensive. The city auditor made the right call in exonerating Mark Mayberry, but the city should be forewarned: there will be consequences for the city’s unlawful actions toward him.”