Red Rocks amphitheater

Coloradans enjoy Red Rocks Amphitheatre, shown here on Nov. 12, 2011.

Music fans will hear about Jesus if they attend concerts at Red Rocks. They can thank a federal judge for that.

We're supposed to have free speech, but the government does a poor job of treating all messengers and messages the same.

It is technically correct to say our country's law-enforcement agencies protect "peaceable" assembly, as required by the First Amendment. Yet, a space alien without knowledge of our laws might conclude the right to protest belongs to those who are scary and violent. Our visitor might believe might makes right and peaceful assemblies are easily quashed.

When left-wing rioters attacked a police precinct in Minneapolis last year, Americans watched law enforcement retreat. Protesters, meanwhile, burned the precinct building without any apparent concern for property or human lives that may have remained inside.

A few months later, Colorado Springs police officers took shelter in a command vehicle as armed, left-wing protesters blocked motorists and tormented a residential neighborhood.

When right wing protesters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a few security and law enforcement officers ushered them in.

Contractors and city employees in Denver spent most of the summer and into the fall trying to clean graffiti off the Colorado Capitol and fix more than $1 million in damages caused by unobstructed left-wing protesters.

For much of the past two years, Americans have watched violent and deadly protests go minimally challenged, if at all, by big city politicians who apparently think all forms of activism are protected by the law. They are not.

All peaceful protest has the protection of the First Amendment, no matter what state or local laws a municipality, county, state, or other publicly funded entity may want to enforce. Violent protests, which includes anything that harms or threatens persons or property, are lawful nowhere in the United States because all jurisdictions have rules against wanton violence and destruction.

The simple distinction between peaceful and harmful gets lost on a society with diminishing knowledge of the founding principles that guide common behavior.

That may explain why Denver city officials have worked overtime to protect attendees of shows at Red Rocks Ampitheatre from hearing the religious proselytizing of Joseph Maldonado. The vice president of an advertising agency, Maldonado's faith compels him to evangelize. He sued after police and Red Rocks authorities told him he must move to a location of their choosing or stop preaching.

We've seen this before. The University of Colorado and other colleges and universities have tried to relegate peaceful demonstrations to so-called "free-speech zones," which the legislature nixed. News flash: All public property constitutes a "free speech zone."

"He wants to share his message on the sidewalks abutting the Top Circle Lot and the Upper North Lot (of Red Rocks) before and during ticketed events at the Amphitheater," wrote U.S. District Senior Judge R. Brooke Jackson, ruling in favor of Maldonado's lawsuit. "Plaintiff has evangelized at these locations on a few occasions without incident."

The only incident occurred when Maldonado and friends tried to evangelize attendees in line for a Snoop Dogg Concert in 2019. They touched no one, blocked no one and broke nothing. Nevertheless, authorities told them to leave because they were not in a pre-authorized speech zone. The group walked away peacefully, and Maldonado peacefully filed a lawsuit with good cause. Police and other city employees not only failed to uphold his First Amendment rights, they used their authority to violate them.

"I assume that many, perhaps most, people who buy tickets for an event at the Amphitheatre are not particularly interested in being proselytized to by Mr. Maldonado or anyone else,..." Jackson wrote in granting Maldonado a preliminary injunction against the city. "But that practical reality does not trump the constitutional issue."

Free speech does mean anything goes, even if a protester's activities fall short of violence. Colorado Revised Statute 18-9-108 declares a public assembly unlawful if it "significantly obstructs or interferes with the meeting, procession, or gathering by physical action, verbal utterance, or any other means."

One can easily preach the gospel on city property without doing anything that "significantly obstructs" attendees at an event. One can stand near the ticket line and advocate communism – or declare God a fiction – without "significantly" obstructing anyone.

The moment a demonstration becomes violent, destructive, or "significantly" disruptive, law enforcement has an obligation to intervene. Cops have an equal obligation to defend peaceful protests of all kinds. Whether peaceful or violent, authorities should never concern themselves with the content of a message – no matter how annoying or unpopular – if communicated peacefully.

Our laws are mostly simple and intuitive, especially when it comes to free expression. We do not get to break things, hurt people, or disrupt events when we advocate change. We get to think, believe, and advocate whatever we want – up to and including social revolution – if we do so in peace.

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