Liberty Place retailers move to quiet protests they say scare away customers

     Retailers move to quiet protests they say scare away customers outside of Liberty One, the second building from the left. (Tom Mihalek/AP Photo, file)

    Retailers move to quiet protests they say scare away customers outside of Liberty One, the second building from the left. (Tom Mihalek/AP Photo, file)

    A religious group soon could be banned from holding racially charged demonstrations outside of an iconic Center City Philadelphia shopping destination.

    Starting Monday, lawyers representing One Liberty Place retailers will argue in Common Pleas Court that the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge is scaring away customers.

    For about a month this May, the West Philadelphia-based nonprofit held loud, weekly demonstrations outside of the skyscraper’s entrance at 16th and Chestnut streets.

    Protesters regularly used bullhorns to hurl slurs against gays and women. They have referred to white people as the devil.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Demonstrations, which occurred periodically at the corner in the past, typically featured at least a half dozen men “dressed in black robes with religious symbols” standing on a platform, according a civil lawsuit filed against the group.

    “When you have demonstrators shouting hate speech on the corner right near the entrance, that causes a drop off in foot traffic. And over time, that’ll have a greater and greater impact on the activity at the shops,” said attorney Jason Gosselin.

    Protesters maintain they have the First Amendment right to deliver their message. Jamie Funt, who is representing the group, said despite the possible shock value of their method, members have every right to say whatever they please as long as they don’t violate any laws.

    “Liberty One has no legal standing in which to do this. They are simply trying to bully the group away in order to make additional dollars,” said Funt.

    An earlier court ruling barred the group from using a private space directly outside of Liberty Place’s front entrance.

    This week’s proceedings could bar them from the public space just beyond that.

    Though the group is no longer using the private space – which Liberty Place rents out to groups and organizations – its demonstrations often attract onlookers that do.

    “We’ve lost the ability to rent out that space, which had been part of the activities at the shop going back several years,” said Gosselin, adding that protesters returned to the corner following the initial ban.

    John Lightbourne, who leads the protests, said his group has always been law abiding and is simply seeking to empower African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

    Being kicked off the corner permanently, he said, would mean that “free speech is gone in America.”

    “Liberty One. The one place for liberty and there is no liberty,” said Lightbourne.

    A decision is expected to be delivered by the end of the week following a day or so of testimony.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal