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Leaflets lead to lawsuit against city; Gregory R. Owen was passing out religious fliers at the Italian festival last year when organizers and police ordered him to stop and, he says, violated his right to free speech

A man who says he was threatened with arrest for handing out religious leaflets during the Italian Festival last year is suing the City of Buffalo.

The Alliance Defense Fund has filed the federal civil rights suit on behalf of Gregory R. Owen, who asserts that Buffalo police forced him to stop handing out fliers with Christian messages during the Sorrento Cheese Buffalo Italian Heritage Festival on Hertel Avenue last July.

"People of faith shouldn't be threatened with arrest for peacefully expressing their beliefs," attorney Nate Kellum said in a written statement. "The Constitution and court precedent in these types of cases is clear: Officials cannot toss someone out of a public event simply because they don't like the views he's expressing. This is a classic example of free speech that the First Amendment protects."

Other groups were allowed to hand out materials at the event, including the U.S. Army and local schools, according to the suit, which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Buffalo.

Owen, who lives in Lockport but is from Springville, according to his Facebook page, recorded much of the confrontation on video and posted it on YouTube.

On the video, Owen can be heard several times talking about the possibility of filing a lawsuit.

An evangelical, born-again Christian, Owen went to the festival with family members and a friend July 16, according to the court documents.

Upon arriving, they noticed two people carrying a sign with a Christian message who had been stopped by police.

After handing out their leaflets for a few minutes, Owen and his companions also were stopped by police and told they were not allowed to hand out the literature.

Officer Cheryl Slomka told the group the prohibition against handing out materials was "by our orders," according to court documents.

"I'm not playing," Slomka said to Owen.

On the video, she affirms, when asked, that arrests would be made if they continue to hand out leaflets.

"You better be careful what you say, ma'am. It'll cost you a lot of money," Owen is heard saying on the video. "We do this all across America. We know what the laws are."

Randy Paul, current vice president of the festival's board of directors, was brought to the scene. He told Owen the organizers had to approve of any materials distributed in the festival area and that the other groups had received permission from organizers, court papers said.

On the YouTube video, much of the conversation with Paul is captured.

"If we let everybody down here, we would have no festival," Paul tells Owen on the video. "People would be annoyed to death."

Police Capt. Gregg Blosat eventually arrived and disputed the public nature of the venue by saying, according to court papers, " the special events permit says they own the street this week."

If Owen was doing something not authorized by the festival organizer, he could and would be ejected, Blosat tells Owen on the video.

Blosat also tells Owen he would be happy to seize his camera until a court case.

Shortly after, Owen and his group left.

The suit names Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda as a defendant, along with Slomka, Blosat and the city.

The Alliance Defense Fund is a group of Christian lawyers headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Owen, 31, is not seeking monetary damages in the suit, according to Jonathan Scruggs, a staff lawyer with the organization.

All that Owen is seeking from the city is to be allowed to hand out materials at future festivals, Scruggs said.

Owen spoke of lawsuits with the officers during the incident to impress upon them the seriousness of the situation, Scruggs said.

The Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to the city last October, long before filing the lawsuit, seeking the same thing, but it received no response from the city, he said.

Owen has passed out leaflets during Thursday at the Square concerts and demonstrated at other events, including the Indianapolis 500 and the Super Bowl, according to his Facebook page.

Neither Owen nor Paul, of the Italian Festival, could be reached to comment Friday.

Michael J. DeGeorge, a spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Police Department, did not respond to a request to comment.