Some things go together: funnel cakes, summer crowds, and street vendors, for instance. The prospect of eternal damnation, on the other hand, tends to dampen the mood. So it was that several Davenport, Iowa police officers escorted street preacher Cory Sessler out of the city’s long-running “Street Fest,” leaving him to condemn the throngs from afar. Citing violations of his First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, he sued both the officers and city. The district court denied his request for a preliminary injunction, and in March, the 8th Circuit upheld that decision.
Begin by recalling that, pre-pandemic, we used to gather in the tens of thousands to gnaw on turkey legs while browsing misshapen pottery and paintings of old barns. Twenty thousand frequented Davenport’s annual Street Fest, which event organizers ran pursuant a city permit allowing them to take over selected streets for several days each July.
Sessler recognized these festival goers as wayward souls, and, bullhorn in hand, descended upon the event to remind them, “if you are involved in . . . sex out of marriage, homosexuality, drunkenness, night clubbing . . . you are destined for a burning hell.” This naturally disrupted the nearby, fee-paying juggling and magic acts, and several officers proposed Sessler preach elsewhere. Although Sessler moved to a new location, festival goers continued to find his messages disturbing. Officers asked he preach across the street from the festival’s entrance. Sessler agreed, and continued his work for a few hours.
Sessler eventually sued the city, claiming that he intended to preach his message again and that the city’s practices violated the First Amendment. He also sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from enforcing its special events policy against him. As applied, Sessler argued, the city’s special events policy prioritized paying vendors’ speech over his own.
The trial court denied Sessler’s requested injunction, and on appeal, the 8th Circuit did as well. While the panel recognized Sessler’s complaints as reasonable at first blush, it concluded that Sessler’s First Amendment rights did not encompass the right to disrupt a permitted event. The panel also concluded that Sessler had failed to demonstrate an irreparable harm because he had no intention of becoming a vendor at a permitted event and identified only vague plans to speak at future events—something he had been allowed to do from different public property during Street Fest. Sessler therefore failed to demonstrate any entitlement to injunctive relief.