Soapbox Speakers

13. Columbus Circle, Part 2.

After World War Two, New York City set up a licensing system to control the use of its streets and parks. The Speakers’ Corner at Columbus Circle was subject to that licensing system. The regulation applied to any regular public soapboxing or religious services.

One regular religious soapboxer, Carl Jacob Kunz, fought City Hall. Kunz was an ordained Baptist minister and Outdoor Gospel Worker. He believed that his duty was to “go out on the highways and byways and preach the word of God.” In 1946, Kunz obtained an annual permit to preach in the streets. Kunz preached, among many other things, that “The Catholic Church makes merchandise out of souls,” that Catholicism is “a religion of the devil,” and that the Pope is “the anti-Christ.” He denounced Jews as “Christ-killers,” and he said of them, “All the garbage that didn’t believe in Christ should have been burnt in the incinerators. It’s a shame they all weren’t.” His meetings were constantly under attack and not surprisingly in 1948 his permit was revoked. When he continued to preach he was arrested and fined $10 for holding a religious meeting without a permit.

Kunz took New York City Council to court citing US Constitutional right of free speech and religious freedom. His court case went to the New York Supreme Court as a test case. His case, Kunz V New York, is still studied in law schools throughout the US.

On the one hand, the New York Supreme Court condemned “statutes and ordinances which required that permits be obtained from local officials as a prerequisite to the use of public places,” on the grounds that a license requirement constituted “a prior restraint on freedom of speech, press and religion, and, in the absence of narrowly drawn, reasonable and definite standards for the officials to follow, must be invalid.”

On the other hand, legal opinion varied. The Chief Justice held that: “This interpretation allows the Police Commissioner, an administrative official, to exercise discretion in denying subsequent permit applications on the basis of his interpretation, at the time, of what is deemed to be conduct condemned by the ordinance.”

Kunz had his day in court on January 15, 1951. The court ruled, “It is sufficient to say that New York cannot vest restraining control over the right to speak on religious subjects in an administrative official where there are no appropriate standards to guide his action.”
(Kunz v New York No. 40 US 290 (Decided January 15, 1951)).

The case is an example of the difficulty of balancing the right of free speech and religious freedom while trying to preserve peace and tolerance.

It its heyday, Columbus Circle attracted many visiting soapbox speakers, including famous Hyde Park speakers, John Webster and Jacobus Van Dyn. Van Dyn was an ex-criminal and tattoo man, who spoke there in this bootlegging days.  By the 1990’s, Columbus Circle Speakers’ Corner was forgotten.

However, as a place for staging political demonstrations Columbus Circle is still a popular location.  Recently about 1,000 Palestine activists began a street march from Columbus Circle. They called a “Mass Rally to Stand Up with Gaza Against Israeli Crimes”. One week on, a counter protest by thousands of pro-Israeli New Yorkers rallied at Columbus Circle. Both rallies were peaceful.

Steve Maxwell.

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