Judge considers request to ban in Liberty Place suit against street preachers

Posted: July 17, 2013

FIERY RANTS about "white devils," "whores" and homosexuals, and calling black passers-by the N-word are what members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge are known for while protesting in front of One Liberty Place.

It's also why the owners of the retail and residential complex, at 16th and Chestnut streets in Center City, filed a lawsuit in May to prevent the group's members from protesting out front.

But during a court hearing yesterday, one of the religious group's leaders, "General" Kory Travis, politely explained to a judge the reasoning behind the harsh words and why his group should be allowed to continue protesting at the entrance to the Shops at Liberty Place, the complex's mall and food court.

"There are certain locations that are necessary to make our message more real," Travis said, noting the wealth inside Liberty Place and the homeless people outside.

He said the corner's high foot traffic makes it the perfect place to preach the Bible to their target audience of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, while also giving whites an opportunity "to understand our plight."

Given the condition of minorities, he said, "sweet talk just won't do."

Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler heard more than six hours of testimony and set Friday for the final day of testimony.

In May, she issued a temporary injunction barring the group from protesting on the portion of the sidewalk owned by One Liberty Place. The order allowed the group to continue to protest on the public sidewalk, which it does every Friday.

Liberty Place attorney Jason P. Gosselin is seeking to have the group barred even from the sidewalk because, he said, the area is too small for their protests and because of their hateful speech.

"It's just the whole hostile environment created by their language, their themes, the loudness of it. It creates a volatile environment," Gosselin said after the hearing.

Attorney James Funt, who represents the Israelites, said a ruling that bars them from protesting on the public sidewalk would put a chill on every small organization's First Amendment rights.

"There are positions that my clients take that I don't agree with. But I think that they absolutely have a fundamental right to say it," Funt said during an interview.

"When we start limiting speech, we all become diminished by that. We should be concerned when a big organization and the big firms do something like this."

On Twitter: @MensahDean

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