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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

First Amendment rights

August 2, 2021

Federal judges in two states last week issued groundbreaking First Amendment rulings — on free expression through bologna sandwiches and zoos.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

Here’s something you probably haven’t thought about: Would you go to court to protect your right to pass out bologna sandwiches?

Is the distribution of bologna a religious act or expression protected by the First Amendment? (Insert your own joke here about people spewing baloney.)

You’ve guessed by now that we have litigation about this issue. Members of the New Life Evangelical Center in St. Louis sued after police officers cited them for passing out the sandwiches without a permit.

According to a federal judge’s ruling last week, “The Incident Report stated that Officer Ogunjobi observed Ohnimus handing out prepared sandwiches from a cooler that did not have ice in it.”

That’s one sharp-eyed cop doing his duty.

Bologna can go bad and the city didn’t want the homeless to get sick. Hungry is OK, but not sick.

Imagine for a moment that you’re the lawyer for the evangelicals. When your clients present you with this scenario, shouldn’t your first advice be: “Consider peanut butter?”

Or maybe, “comply with the requirements to make your food safe?”

Maybe the lawyer(s) here did that — I don’t know — but instead we got a lawsuit attacking the city ordinance as interference with religious freedom and expression.

Noted the ruling: “Redlich (one of the plaintiffs) admits that he can communicate his message that God loves the homeless by distributing food other than bologna sandwiches, and there’s nothing about a bologna sandwich in and of itself that can communicate God’s love as opposed to a different kind of sandwich.”

Unless, of course, you’re with the Church of O. Mayer, patron saint of processed meat.

I think what happened here is that someone really likes bologna. Or maybe needs to give it away.

Be that as it may, the dispute, amazingly, produced a 42-page federal court ruling.

Someone may have been bored.

Meanwhile, another federal judge in Oklahoma last week ruled that the First Amendment also fails to protect the right to express yourself by exhibiting animals.

I’m not exactly sure what the expression would be, but I suppose caging beasts does express a feeling about animal freedom. The owners of (or at least lawyers for) Tiger King Park in Thackerville, Oklahoma, seemed to be saying this in response to being sued for violating the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act.

Yes, it’s that Tiger King Park — the one in the Netflix series.

The court didn’t have any trouble with this one: “Defendants have wholly failed to identify any expressive element in their exhibition of animals.”

They should have put signs on the cages.

Sentence of the week from a Los Angeles Times front-page article about professional wrestling shows with actual audiences in Japan: “But she said she felt far safer about wrestling events than she did about the Olympic Games.”

Sometimes I think all of reality is kayfabe.

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