Fighting for his rights: Street preacher sues the city

Jesse Morrell has butted heads with New Haven police over the right to free speech.

Jesse Morrell has butted heads with New Haven police over the right to free speech.

Jesse Morrell has butted heads with New Haven police over the right to free speech.

Jesse Morrell doesn’t mince his words. Morrell is an itinerant preacher for Open Air Outreach, an organization that seeks to spread its literal interpretation of Christian moral teachings far and wide, using the open air of the public domain as its vehicle. Two years ago, when Morrell took to the stone walkways of Yale University, he didn’t like what he found.

“To be honest,” Morrell wrote, in a 2007 entry to his online newsletter entitled “Sinners at Yale University,” “I was not impressed with either the morality or the intelligence of the Yale Students.” Morrell expressed surprise at rumors of widespread homosexuality and promiscuity on campus, but boldly concluded that, “after preaching to the students myself, I believe these strong claims. During the three days of ministry at this campus multiple students revealed themselves to me as homosexuals and bisexuals…God help the future leaders of our world.”

At the time that he typed this entry, Morrell was already well established on the streets of New Haven. Two years earlier, in 2005, Morrell had filed a civil rights suit against two cops who allegedly tried to prevent him from giving one of his sidewalk sermons—and yanked the wire from his audio recorder when he tried to tape his expulsion. Two months ago, Morrell won his case, with the City of New Haven choosing to settle out of court and pay 25,000 dollars in damages.

Jesse Morrell is now 24 years old. He is pale, bespectacled, with thinning hair and a wispy goatee. He wears leather suspenders that link to a belt he uses to hold up an enormous placard warning fornicators, homosexuals, feminists, and other species of sinners of the fire and brimstone that awaits them. He speaks loudly and confidently, in a thick New England accent.

Morrell hails from New Haven originally, where as an adolescent, he was a drug-addict, dealer, and juvenile delinquent. By the age of 16, he had collected two felonies and had already made multiple trips to Juvenile Court on Whalley Avenue. But Morrell’s life was sharply rerouted when, while in juvenile detention, he met a preacher who introduced him to the Gospel and converted him to Christianity.

“I naturally wanted to share my message with others,” Morrell said. “I had heard of open air preaching, so I decided to give it a try.” He began preaching at the bus stops on the New Haven Green, cycling around the periphery to reach the biggest crowds as they gathered to wait for their rides.

Open air preaching provides Morrell with “the most effective way to reach the most people in the shortest amount of time with the least expense,” he said. “It’s traditional, in the Gospel and throughout American history,” he argued. “I want to have real dialogue with people in a public arena over the issues over the Bible.”

According to Morrell, Open Air Outreach has been a tremendous success over the course of his involvement. “If our objective is to reach the general public with the Gospel, and get people to think and talk about the Bible, then we’re very effective,” he claimed. He tells the story of one woman in particular to whom he preached on the Green. “She began to weep over her sin and I told her she would be saved,” he recounted. “It turns out that this woman was the drug dealer for the entire Green. She quit that very night, and soon after got her children back from the state of Connecticut.”

For the vast majority of Morrell’s audience, though, his message and his method invariably prove offensive. Morrell typically wears over his shoulders a sandwich board addressed to: “Fornicators, drunkards, sodomites, pot smokers, gangster rappers, immodest women, Darwinists, gamblers, feminists, socialists, abortionists, pornographers, homosexuals, jihadists, dirty dancers, [and] hypocrites.”

“Warning,” the sign reads, “Judgement Day is coming.” Since his list of offenders encompasses virtually the entire population of New Haven in some capacity, there is inevitably someone who has a bone to pick with him. When this occurs, Morrell never backs down. Instead, he amps up the rhetoric to Jonathan Edwards-like proportions.

“Sinners high and low are going to hell!” he bellows, in a fairly representative sermon. “All sinners are going to hell! All sinners! Every sinner! Whether they’re homeless, or whether they’re millionaires! All sinners will be cast into the lake of fire!”

Needless to say, this rhetoric does not go over well with most bystanders. A prophecy of our eternal damnation is never the most welcome of greetings, particularly as we walk down the street to work on a cold winter morning. Nevertheless, it is clear that what Jesse Morrell is preaching is well protected by the First Amendment.

“Free speech means that you’re free to share your opinions and views publicly,” Morrell proclaims, “whether they’re popular or not, whether they’re offensive or not, and whether the audience likes it or not.” As Jonathan Scruggs, Morrell’s attorney, argued, Morrell suffered a clear violation of this right when police threatened him with arrest if he did not depart from his chosen location for preaching.

“Mr. Morrell attempted to go and express his religious views,” said Scruggs, “and was prevented from doing so because people disagreed with the content of his beliefs.” According to Scruggs, this was an example of a “heckler’s veto”—the reaction of a hostile audience to the content of an individual’s speech, and the consequent denial of that individual the ability to continue to express his beliefs. “It is never acceptable for an audience to object to the content of speech, and for the police to remove a speaker on that basis,” argued Scruggs.

There are a number of valid justifications for limiting speech, but none of them applied in the case of Jesse Morrell. “If the speaker is using fighting words directed at a particular individual and meant to elicit a brawl,” allowed Scruggs, “if he is blocking the sidewalk, being objectively unreasonable, or being so loud, with a bullhorn, for instance, as to prevent other means of effective communication amongst his fellow citizens, then and only then may the police intervene.” On whether the police officers in question may have had legitimate cause for threatening Morrell with arrest, the New Haven Police Department could not be reached for comment.

But it was Morrell himself who provided the most articulate account of the philosophical underpinnings of free speech. “A free exchange of ideas is essential to freedom,” he quipped, “so that we can determine for ourselves what we will and won’t believe. You can’t have real liberty of thought without everyone having liberty of speech.”

Morrell is clearly fluent in the language of rights. “So long as I’m not being vulgar, so long as I’m not purposely trying to incite a riot, my right to free speech remains intact.” And even in those circumstances, he argued, the right is limited only because private property is thereby endangered. “Back in the ’70s,” he explained, “some of those radical hippies would give speeches trying to get their audience to go into New York City and start a riot. But that endangers the right of private property, so it’s unlawful.” He paused before emphasizing the clear difference between that type of speech and his own. “I’m not interfering with anybody else’s rights when I speak,” he said. “If they don’t like what I’m preaching, they can go somewhere else.”

Morrell sees a distinct relationship between the right to free speech and the right to private property. According to his understanding of American democracy, though at times these concepts might interfere, for the most part they operate as the twin pillars of American freedom: The curtailment of one freedom threatens the curtailment of the other. It is for this reason that Morrell is now particularly concerned with the future of his preaching. “It’s hard to tell with Obama these days,” he said. “He’s not a friend of many American values.” Morrell was referring specifically to the current healthcare debate occurring in Congress, and the position of President Obama that all citizens should have guaranteed healthcare coverage. “It’s contrary to the value of private property. It’s redistribution of wealth. The American system is built on the principle that you get what you work for.” Given what he perceives as the ravaging of American private property rights taking place with healthcare reform, Morrell fears that his right to freely profess his religion in public may be the next victim of Obama’s tyranny. “If he’s violated one right,” Morrell wondered, “then why stop there? Why not violate another?”

Whether Morrell acknowledges the fact, all rights are subject to certain limits, and the question of whether he has reached those limits is a valid one. Morrell was neither speaking so loudly as to cause a disturbance nor blocking the sidewalk to disrupt pedestrian traffic; he was not inciting a riot and he was not instigating violence (not intentionally, at least). The Supreme Court has established a “fighting words doctrine” to establish when the curtailment of speech falls within the bounds of the Constitution. According to this doctrine, speech is inadmissible when it is directed at a single individual—when the speaker is insulting a specific person in order to elicit a brawl or proclaim an intention to injure.

Importantly, Scruggs differentiates between fighting words and hate speech. “The Supreme Court has never acknowledged a concept of hate speech,” he argued. “Hate speech is a very dangerous doctrine that is anathema in First Amendment doctrine, and that is essentially because hate speech is always in the eyes of a beholder.” Thus, although Morrell propagates a fairly unambiguous message of hate regarding a number of groups in society, that feature of his sermon cannot justify its censure.

But as for the former category, Morrell is towing a fine line between protected speech and fighting words. He describes his preaching style as “confrontational,” and recounted an episode in which he parked his operation next to a gang of inner-city youths blasting loud hip-hop music with violent, expletive-laden lyrics, and began a vitriolic criticism of gangster rap. “I’ve learned how to get people’s attention and hold their attention,” he claims. “To get a captive audience, you need to be very direct and very personal, based on the sins in their own life.”

Morrell’s intent to be “very direct and very personal,” however, sounds suspiciously like a violation of the standard articulated by the fighting words doctrine. While Morrell has no history of aggression or violence as a preacher, he certainly has no problem incurring the wrath of a large audience. “They say, ‘you’re offending us,’” said Morrell, describing the ubiquitous complaint against his preaching, “But all I’m doing is telling you the nature of your moral character.”

Nevertheless, his detractors have not been able to produce constitutional grounds for his censure. Morrell aims his assaults at common social behaviors that he deems immoral, directing his criticism at the broad groups of individuals guilty of them. In so doing, he seems to be dancing around the fighting words doctrine—subtly instigating his audience while refraining from taunting specific individuals. “I’m inviting a response,” he argues. “I’m trying to get people to dialogue with me.” Confrontation—within the bounds of the Constitution—is in Morrell’s view the most expedient way to produce that dialogue. “I’m not going to go to a campus and expound the theory of the Trinity. The students don’t think about it; they don’t care about it. I’m going to talk about the sins of homosexual marriage, or a woman’s choice to have an abortion,” he said. “That will get them listening.”

There runs the risk, however, that this constitutional discussion of freedom and its limits may be rendered completely irrelevant if law enforcement officials are incognizant of the rights that citizens hold beyond the threat of curtailment. “Its genuine ignorance,” said Morrell. “These cops are used to solving problems. They’re not schooled in constitutional law, and so they end up giving me a hard time.” Scruggs issued a similar lament. “It’s somewhat typical,” he admitted, “local officials, not informed of constitutional requirements, leading to a haphazard violation of someone’s rights.”

On the other hand, New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts, one of whose responsibilities is to oversee the New Haven Police Department, countered this claim. “Police officers have extensive training in basic constitutional issues,” he explained. Smuts also accommodated Morrell’s perception that cops employ a problem-solving mindset. “The New Haven Police Department practices community policing, which is about problem solving. Even if there is not necessarily an infraction, if the police see the potential for a problem, they will often try and mediate it and find a solution.” But at the same time, this community policing model by no means entails the abrogation of citizens’ constitutional rights. “What this shouldn’t result in,” said Smuts, “is making an arrest or issuing an infraction that is improper.”

The entire issue is complicated by the practice of extra-duty detail, whereby a private business in the city can request to hire an officer who will police the premises and ensure the security of the surrounding locale. Morrell was threatened with arrest when he attempted to preach outside a popular New Haven nightclub. One of the cops responsible for harassing Morrell was on such an extra-duty detail working for that club. The complicating and controversial element of such a setup is the practice of the “hold-down,” in which a particular officer can have a right to a particular extra-duty detail. As the result of a “hold-down,” any officer can cultivate a close business relationship with a particular employer and gain extra-duty detail by those means.

The problem, Smuts contends, is that “this can lead to the perception of a conflict of interest. If that officer has a business relationship with that establishment, it often leads to the perception that they are taking the interest of that establishment over the neutral public interest when evaluating their course of action.” Whether such a conflict of interest existed in Jesse Morrell’s particular case, Mr. Smuts could not comment. But he would say that it is for the possibility of such a perception that the city is currently negotiating with the police union to ban the practice of “hold-downs” for future extra-duty detail assignments.

As for Jesse Morrell, having won his suit against the city and acquitted his stalwart understanding of his own right to free speech, he has no reservations about continuing preaching. Not even the threat of imprisonment can restrain him from preaching the Bible’s truth as he understands it. “I used to go to jail for the sake of my sin,” he says. “How much more willing then should I be to go to jail now, to sacrifice for the sake of Jesus Christ?” Morrell is currently traveling the country preaching at various universities under the auspices of Open Air Outreach. He plans on returning to New Haven to preach this spring. When he does, residents of the Elm City may notice a change in his style. “Back then, I was not nearly as confrontational as I am now,” Morrell said. Whether his increasingly confrontational style will continue to fall within the protections of the Constitution remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the officers of the New Haven Police Department will tread a bit more lightly around Jesse Morrell the next time they come across his pulpit.

By Dennis Howe

2 Responses

  1. Bro Cope says:

    An excellent article. Well written and balanced. It is a far cut above what we preachers usually encounter in terms of “news reporting”. What we normally get is editorializing hardly masked as reporting. Thank you.

  2. Amanda says:

    Jesse Morrell’s teachings sit like a brick in my stomach. Our pastor invited him and he has accepted. Our pastor has been preaching on homosexuality for the last month non stop. He is obsessed with Morrell to the point of driving people away. The head pastor that our pastor holds his licence under warned him that this approach is going to cause more harm that goods and I have seen the harm happening like an open book. Our pastor should have heeded the head pastor’s warning. I have worked with street youth for four years and will be warning each and every one of them to stay clear away from the open air preaching coming soon. Instead we will focus on other areas of need in the community. See, don’t any of you get it? Morrell not only provokes unbelievers but provokes believers who are awesome and have been working in various ministries for quite some time. He crosses boundaries, challenges authority and places his self righteous ‘look at me I got a black eye for Jesus, look at me we can only afford beans for dinner tonight, look at me see how the crowd gets angry, see how they mock me’ on a pedastel. Jesse Morrell is an antagonistic Christian, one which me and my ministry will stay away from along with the others who have enough sense to do the same.

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