Laws In Puerto Rico Restricting Access To Public Streets Violate First Amendment
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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union, its national chapter in Puerto Rico and its affiliates in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island filed a friend-of-the-court brief late Wednesday opposing unconstitutional laws that effectively ban Jehovah's Witnesses from freely expressing their faith in the streets of Puerto Rico.
The brief, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, supports a constitutional challenge to Puerto Rico laws, enacted in 1987, that authorize neighborhoods to deny citizens access to public residential streets by erecting walls and gates around them. The laws effectively prohibit Jehovah's Witnesses from engaging in the door-to-door public ministry for which they are well known worldwide. The federal lawsuit was filed by the approximately 25,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in 318 congregations in Puerto Rico, as well as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., the publisher of religious material that is often distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses.
"The Jehovah's Witnesses unquestionably have a constitutionally protected right to proclaim their faith on the public streets of Puerto Rico," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "These laws impose sweeping restrictions on free speech and religious exercise and strike at the heart of the First Amendment."
The ACLU's amicus brief, filed with cooperating counsel at the Washington, DC office of Mayer Brown LLP, argues that closing off public streets to outside speakers is an unprecedented intrusion on some of the most basic, fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The brief also notes that the amount of constitutionally protected speech restricted by the challenged laws extends well beyond religious expression. The laws not only limit the ability of religious adherents to spread their message of faith, but also prohibit, for example, door-to-door charitable solicitations and political canvassing.
"The public street has long been the archetype of a traditional public forum," said William Ramirez, Executive Director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico. "These laws dangerously limit access to places that for ages have served as forums for unfettered public discussion and communication."
The brief also argues that personal appeals made through door-to-door messaging have long been recognized as uniquely powerful means of communication, and there are no adequate alternatives available under Puerto Rico's restrictive laws. Door-to-door messaging is also the only means of communication that is affordable for many small and poorly financed groups, and bans on door-to-door messaging effectively serves to silence these groups entirely.
A copy of the ACLU's amicus brief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/watchtower-bible-et-al-v-de-jesus-et-al-brief
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion