Christian Student on Why He’s Suing Chicago Over Free Speech
( Daily Signal )
All they wanted to do was share the gospel message—and they’d been doing it for years in downtown Chicago. But this time, the four Christian college students were shut down by law enforcement. Now, they’re suing the city of Chicago, saying their First Amendment rights to free speech have been violated. One of those students, Matthew Swart, joins the podcast to explain what’s at stake in this case. Read the interview, pasted below, or listen to the podcast.
Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Matthew Swart. He is a sophomore at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he and three of his fellow students are suing the city of Chicago over a speech ordinance.
Matthew, appreciate you calling in.
Matthew Swart: Hey, great to be here with you Daniel.
Davis: Matthew, not many college students end up suing a major city like Chicago, but that’s exactly what you guys are doing. Tell me, how did this dispute first begin?
Swart: Daniel, myself and some students are part of an organization known as the Chicago Evangelism Team. We’d go down into the city of Chicago on Friday nights. We’re taking a metro train and we share the gospel of Jesus Christ with whoever we encounter, that sinners can be reconciled to God through repentance and putting their faith in Jesus Christ and be restored to a new relationship with him.
So, we’d go around the city, we’d talk to whoever we feel led to. Eventually, our activities led us into Millennium Park last year.
We didn’t have any issues, starting off. We would pass out different … gospel tracts, they’re small pamphlets with some information inside of them. We would talk to whoever we felt led to.
We started to run into issues on Dec. 7, 2018. Myself and a fellow plaintiff, Caeden Hood, were in the park on that night and we were passing out gospel tracts within the park. We were approached by a park security guard, who informed us that we were not allowed to do what we were doing within the park.
We obeyed. We stepped outside of the park and then, once we were on the public sidewalk in front, Caeden began to street preach from out front.
We were again approached by a security guard and told to stop. I questioned him, saying that it was a public sidewalk. I didn’t understand why we were being forced to do so. He told me he was just doing his job. So, we obeyed.
About 15 minutes later, another one of our fellow students, another plaintiff, Jeremy Chong, arrived at the scene and he, believing we were in our full rights to do so, began to also street preach in front of the park.
We were then approached by a supervisor in the park, after we requested to speak to one, who told us we were in violation of an ordinance from the city of Chicago, saying that solicitation is not allowed within the park.
Davis: Just for some context, this is something that’s been going on for quite a while, right? A disclosure for our listeners: I also am a Wheaton College alum and I remember the Chicago Evangelism Team going out every Friday night and they would do this.
Are these the same practices that you guys have been doing for a long time?
Swart: Yes, as far as I understand, they are. The Chicago Evangelism Team has been around for decades, going down to Chicago, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, it’s absolutely a long-running organization.
Davis: Before we get into the details of the dispute here, tell me a little bit about why you guys do this.
Swart: In Matthew 28 of the Bible, Jesus commands his disciples to go into all the nations, making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, commanding the disciples to teach them to obey all he’s commanded.
Myself and my fellow students are Christians and we take this issue seriously to heart and we obey this by going into the city because we believe we’ve received the greatest news ever. It’s something that’s transformed all of our lives and we just want to share it with everyone around us.
So, being there’s a lot of people in Millennium Park, that’s why we’re going there. We believe that it’s an important opportunity for us. Furthermore, maybe even anyone who’s outside of the Christian faith who’s listening, this is a free speech issue that’s critical to all of us.
Our First Amendment specifically guarantees us the right to this type of protected speech. It’s inside of a public park, which is the quintessential public forum. So, if anyone wanted to share a message within Millennium Park, the current rules the city of Chicago has in place prohibit them from doing so and are infringing upon the free speech of everyone that goes there.
We’re concerned both for our personal faith, but also for the welfare of our fellow citizens and our country.
Davis: What kind of encounters have you had in the past with people [while] doing this?
Swart: We’ve had a host of different encounters. Sometimes, people will respond well to us, they’ll hear the message, we’ll have a great conversation. Oftentimes, we do get rejected by people.
On one specific occasion, some of my fellow students, actually, it’s a long story, but they actually stopped a woman from committing suicide while we were in the city. We run into a host of different experiences in the city. So, it’s always something different.
Davis: Wow, that’s remarkable.
Davis: You mentioned the city ordinance. It was recently passed, correct?
Swart: One key piece of information here is, we were informed of this solicitation ordinance when we arrived in December of last year, 2018. We began corresponding with a law firm, trying to figure out what our options were.
On one occasion, on April 5, Jeremy Chong went to the park and was actually informed by a park supervisor that they had passed a new set of rules, which cut up the park into 12 different rooms and specifically worded the passing out of literature and making speeches was only allowed in one corner for the park.
That, specifically, is the set of rules we’re objecting to now. Our law firm, as well as us, believes it’s unconstitutional to divide a public park up into rooms where free speech is only allowed in parts of it.
Davis: This ordinance, then, would apply to anyone who wants to speak publicly, right? Not just Christians. So, have you gotten any support from beyond the Christian community on free speech grounds?
Swart: Yes, we have. I don’t believe they’ve gone in the lawsuit with us, but when this was first beginning, the American Civil Liberties Union voiced their support with us in this case because apparently, they’ve had issues in Millennium Park as well, where they believe that civil liberties of Americans are being violated by the city of Chicago.
This is a very important point. If any political activist wanted to do something in the park, or an environmental activist, even if the Black Lives Matter group wanted to be in the park, under the city rules, they’d be prohibited from doing so.
Davis: Wow. What about your Wheaton College campus community? Have you gotten support there, and is the school weighing in at all?
Swart: The institution of the school itself is being careful to make sure that they are not officially associated with the lawsuit. It is a group of us four independent students who are filing the suit.
However, we’ve received a tremendous amount of informal support in the school. We had an article published in The Wheaton Record, which is the local school newspaper, about us. The Tribune article that was written about us was passed all over the faculty community and amongst students, so it’s actually come at a particularly crucial time, I think.
There’s a little bit of division around campus about some race issues and I think we’ve been able to find some unity among all, that we can all agree the spread of the gospel and the protection of free speech are important issues. So, we’ve received a very positive response from our campus community, which has been a blessing.
Davis: You announced last week that this was going forward and since then, is the city of Chicago standing firmly behind its new policy? I know courts in the past have been really deferential to people who are making free speech claims. Have you sensed that they’re concerned that they might lose or that they might backtrack?
Swart: Yes, I do believe so. On, I believe it was Aug. 26, I could have that date wrong, but just before we were heading to go file this suit, I’m not sure if it was pressure from journalists or something, but they actually amended the rules slightly, where they changed some of the language within the rules itself. Where it had said that a permit would be required for anyone disrupting conduct, they changed to say “objectively requiring.” They actually removed the permit restriction.
Also, it’s still restricted within the park and is chopped into these rooms. So, there’s already some concessions being made and our law team senses that this is the city acknowledging that they know there’s an issue with the rules.
Swart: They haven’t made any official public comments yet, but I expect that there’s concern within the city about the constitutionality of the rules.
Davis: Interesting. What’s next for the case? What are the next steps?
Swart: Our complaint was officially filed in the federal court this past Wednesday. We expect it to be going to trial this week. Our law firm, Mauck & Baker, will be providing any updates on the status of that case.
We’re hoping for it to speedily go through court. The law seems to be entirely on our side, so hopefully [any updates in the case] should certainly be coming out in the news.
Davis: Well, suing a local city, especially a massive city like Chicago, it’s got to be a big undertaking. Is this something that you would encourage other Americans to do, if they feel similarly violated?
Swart: Absolutely. All of this was made possible by the tremendous work of Mauck & Baker, which is a Christian law firm. They have a podcast called “Lawyers for Jesus” and this is part of the work they explicitly do, to try and protect the religious liberties of those who come to them. So, all their work has been pro bono.
I imagine there’s many other organizations like Mauck & Baker out there who have a desire to see the rights of the individuals in our country protected. All it took for us was just an inquiry and some desire into the case.
Absolutely, I encourage any other American who is undergoing the same type of issues to reach out and try and make some contact, because our rights being upheld and provided for requires that we constantly fight for them. I believe it’s very important to constantly defend those.
Davis: Well, we’ll leave it there. Matthew, appreciate your time today and thanks for joining us.
Swart: Yeah, you’re very welcome, Daniel. Thanks for the opportunity.