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Street Preacher Suing Denver for Limiting His Activities at Red Rocks

Joseph Maldonado can be spotted preaching throughout metro Denver.EXPAND
Joseph Maldonado can be spotted preaching throughout metro Denver.
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Street preacher Joseph Maldonado has sued the City and County of Denver over its refusal to allow him to spread the word in high foot-traffic areas of Red Rocks Park — back when there were high-traffic areas, that is.

"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," says Nate Kellum, a lawyer with the Memphis-based Center for Religious Expression, which filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Colorado on Maldonado's behalf. "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."

Maldonado, a Christian who "seeks to share the gospel in public forums, like parks and public sidewalks, where he can find members of the general public," according to his attorneys, arrived with two friends at Red Rocks around 5 p.m. on April 18, 2019. Snoop Dogg was set to perform that night, and Maldonado, a Broomfield resident who preaches throughout the metro area, and his friends 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 before, staffers had simply told him that he couldn't use an amplification device while preaching.

But this time, the preaching was soon silenced altogether. Red Rocks staffers and a Denver police officer came over and told Maldonado and his friends that they needed to leave the area. Red Rocks is a Denver park, and the city's Arts & Venues agency runs Red Rocks Amphitheatre; the city workers showed the group a map and pointed to five designated areas "where speech is allowed in Red Rocks park," according to the complaint.

This map of Red Rocks shows where Denver allows people to preach and engage in other public-forum activities.EXPAND
This map of Red Rocks shows where Denver allows people to preach and engage in other public-forum activities.
Courtesy of Nate Kellum

"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 police officer let Maldonado's group know that he'd cite them for trespassing if they didn't move, and eventually they decided to leave.

A few months later, Maldonado's wife, Michelle Medina, reached out to the City of Denver to discuss the policy, which she and her husband believed to be a violation of the First Amendment. But city employees restated the Denver policy of designating just five areas for public-forum activities, such as preaching, she says.

After retaining legal counsel, Maldonado contacted the city this summer, trying to resolve the matter without  litigation. The Denver City Attorney's Office stood by the policy, however.

Kellum then filed a lawsuit on Maldonado's behalf on October 15, claiming that Denver had violated his First Amendment rights.

"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."

The City Attorney's Office has declined to comment on the case, but in a November 25 filing indicated that it rejects the merits of the complaint. Denver plans to argue that the policy restricting public-forum activities in Red Rocks Mountain Park to five specified areas is reasonable in relation to the stated purpose of the amphitheater and therefore constitutional.

"The policy at issue declares that Denver’s arts venues, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre and any associated parking lots, garage and adjacent outdoor assembly areas, are not public forums for expressive activities by members of the public," the filing states. 

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