SALT LAKE CITY A local high school group got a firsthand lesson in free speech this week after being asked to leave a former city block that has been turned into a pedestrian mall by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The group of 25 students from West High School had planned to meet with the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah for a talk on free speech during a field trip March 24 at the Main Street Plaza, just outside the church's downtown temple.
But guards at the plaza told them to move on and hold their talk in a nearby public park instead.
"We thought we were going to talk about these issues on the plaza and we ended up becoming the issue," said teacher Jay Wilgus.
Dani Eyer of the ACLU claimed guards told her, "I'm sure you wouldn't say anything wrong, but we have to control what is said."
Church spokesman Dale Bills says the public is invited to enjoy the plaza, but formal meetings or lectures aren't allowed. The students handled themselves respectfully and left when asked, he said.
Freedom of speech has been a key issue in the ongoing debate over the pedestrian mall.
The plaza dispute began in April 1999, when the church paid the city $8.1 million for one block of Main Street adjacent to the church's temple. The block, which is now a landscaped pedestrian plaza, formerly was a main traffic artery into and out of the city's downtown.
The church agreed to the city's demand for public access to the block, but demanded in turn that the church be allowed to restrict smoking, sunbathing, bicycling, "obscene" or "vulgar" speech, dress or conduct on the plaza.
The ACLU of Utah sued, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional.
On Oct. 9, 2002, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in First Unitarian Church v. Salt Lake City in favor of the ACLU and the plaintiffs it then represented. The city, not the church, was responsible for maintaining order on the 660-foot easement through the plaza, the court ruled.
But another deal was struck last summer. In exchange for the right to regulate behavior on the plaza, the church gave the city four acres and more than $4 million from the church and private donations to build a community center.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in August challenging the constitutionality of church-imposed restrictions on the block.
Some students found the experience eye-opening.
"I'm LDS and I thought, 'Wow, I'm being kicked off and I'm part of that (church) too," said Danielle Vialpando, 18.
Another student, 17-year-old Trent Escandon, said the church had the right to control speech.
"I understand the difference between private property and public property," he said. "It's private. They can discriminate all they want."