Street preacher Joseph Maldonado has scored an early victory against the City of Denver over its free-speech policy at Red Rocks Park.
On August 6, Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court of Colorado denied Denver's motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed last October by Maldonado that claimed the city had violated his rights to spread the good word around Red Rocks. Although the judge did dismiss the claim against a Denver police officer who'd been sued in his "individual capacity," saying the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, the case against the city remains.
"Mr. Maldonado shared his religious messages well outside the barricades separating the amphitheater from the rest of the park, and he did not interfere with pedestrian traffic. His speech was nonetheless prohibited," Judge Jackson wrote.
Maldonado's attorney, Nate Kellum of the Memphis-based Center for Religious Expression, declined to comment on Jackson's ruling. He'd previously told Westword that "Mr. Maldonado is not seeking to go into the amphitheatre. He's not seeking to go into the event. He wants to be in part of the park where people are already free to be. ... There's no question that if he were just standing there, he would be left alone, but once he starts trying to communicate a message, he gets shut down. And that's what we think is unconstitutional."
The Denver City Attorney's Office, which represents the city and the police lieutenant who's now been removed from the case, also declined to comment.
The original complaint brought by Maldonado, a Broomfield resident and Christian who "seeks to share the gospel in public forums, like parks and public sidewalks, where he can find members of the general public," focuses on his experience at Red Rocks around 5 p.m. on April 18, 2019. Snoop Dogg was set to perform that evening, and Maldonado and some friends who also planned to preach headed for a sidewalk next to the Top Circle lot.
"Maldonado spoke with bystanders and held up a sign, peacefully conveying the gospel message," according to the complaint, while also being "out of the way of pedestrian traffic flow and able to address people as they walked on another sidewalk leading to the amphitheatre."
When Maldonado had preached at Red Rocks in the past, staffers had simply instructed him not to use an amplification device.
But this time, the preaching was shut down completely. Red Rocks staffers and a Denver police officer came over to Maldonado and his friends and told them that they needed to leave that particular area. Red Rocks is a Denver park, and the city's Arts & Venues department runs Red Rocks Amphitheatre; staffers then pointed out five designated spots on a map "where speech is allowed in Red Rocks park," according to the complaint.
"Maldonado knew that any attempt to speak in any one of the 5 spots would be futile since hardly anyone would be there to receive his message," the complaint states. But the cop made it clear that he'd cite the group for trespassing if they didn't move, and eventually they decided to leave.
Maldonado's wife, Michelle Medina, later reached out to the city to complain, saying that she and her husband believed the policy was a violation of the First Amendment. But city employees restated the Denver policy of designating just five areas at Red Rocks for public-forum activities such as preaching.
After retaining legal counsel, Maldonado contacted the city last summer, trying to resolve the matter without a lawsuit. The City Attorney's Office stood by the policy, however.
Kellum then filed a lawsuit on Maldonado's behalf, claiming that Denver had violated his First Amendment rights and due-process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.
"In applying this policy to Red Rocks Park, Denver goes far beyond the immediate vicinity of the amphitheatre and only allows expressive activities in 5 discrete spots among the 868 acres of the park," the complaint states. "None of the 5 spots Denver designated as public forums in Red Rocks park encounter much pedestrian traffic."
In a December filing, the City Attorney's Office rejected the merits of the complaint, arguing that Denver's policy restricting public-forum activities in Red Rocks Mountain Park to five specified areas was and is reasonable in relation to the stated purpose of the amphitheater, and therefore constitutional.
But Jackson didn't buy that argument in the city's motion to dismiss. "The purpose of plaintiff’s speech —to reach others with his religious messages — is thus almost entirely thwarted by his being relegated to these out-of-the-way free speech zones," Jackson stated in the August 6 order.
And the case continues.