Personhood Tour participants wait for authorities at the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center to release Columbus pastor Stephen Joiner in this 2011 Dispatch file photo. Joiner was arrested during the group’s demonstration against abortion in Columbus. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
June 7, 2014 11:03:35 PM
A local pastor arrested beside a Columbus street three years ago while taking part in a pro-life rally has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and one of its police officers.
Stephen Joiner, the pastor at First Church of the Nazarene, claims his arrest was "unconstitutional" and violated his right to freedom of speech. He is asking the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi to declare that the city and police Capt. Fred Shelton, who made the arrest, violated his constitutional rights.
The suit was filed last month.
The arrest occurred March 30, 2011, near the intersection of Highway 45 North and 18th Avenue. Joiner had joined 30 to 40 people who were taking part in The Personhood Tour, a two-week tour of Mississippi intended to drive support for the state's Personhood Amendment, which would have declared "personhood" at fertilization. Joiner believes life begins at conception, according to the lawsuit.
"After a brief discussion with the pro-life advocates, pastor Joiner then took a sign [and] displayed it to a passerby from his place on the public right of way several feet back from the roadside," the lawsuit states. "He was not physically obstructing traffic or intentionally interfering with the movement of ... traffic."
Shelton, who had arrived at the scene, asked the group to leave because they were interfering with traffic. Joiner disagreed, saying he had a First Amendment right to remain on the public right of way. Shelton ultimately arrested Joiner for "failure to obey a police officer," according to the suit.
A trial in municipal court on August 9, 2011, found Joiner guilty. He appealed the conviction to County Court. That court dismissed the case last year.
"Pastor Joiner desires to return to the public ways within the city of Columbus and engage in expressive activities such as holding a sign, passing out literature, and sharing his views with passerby, but is fearful of further arrests or citations," the lawsuit states.
When reached Friday, Joiner, 55, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He directed questions to his attorneys.
Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, is representing Joiner in the suit. Staver told The Dispatch the case "goes to the very core of the First Amendment's protection of the right to speak freely."
"If officers in Columbus can arrest individuals who are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights on the public streets and sidewalks merely because the officer or some other onlooker takes offense to what is being said, then the First Amendment does not mean anything for anyone," Staver said.
The city has not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit.
Columbus city council attorney Jeff Turnage said the city and Shelton will be represented in the case by Wyatt, Terrant and Combs law firm. The firm did not respond to messages seeking comment.
At the time of Joiner's arrest, a police spokesperson told The Dispatch that members of the rally were impeding traffic. The police spokesperson said the abortion issue was irrelevant and that public safety was the department's concern.
Joiner's lawsuit also questions the city's parade ordinance and handbill ordinance. Staver called the ordinances "wildly unconstitutional."
The lawsuit states the parade ordinance places the city's chief of police in charge of determining who may assemble in public rights of way. The suit notes that the handbill ordinance states that it is "unlawful for any person to hand out or distribute or sell any handbill in any public space; except that a handbill may be personally delivered to any person willing to accept the same."
"As written, those two ordinances put every Columbus citizen or visitor at risk of arrest for merely speaking their mind in the public square," Staver told The Dispatch.
Joiner's lawsuit also claims the handcuffs that were placed on him were so tight his wrists bled. He claims that at the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center he was denied food, water and the use of a bathroom. Joiner says he is diabetic. He was released after roughly four hours in custody, according to the lawsuit.
Joiner is asking that the federal court declare the parade ordinance and handbill ordinance unconstitutional. He is also asking for compensatory damages and for the incident to be expunged from his record.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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