Kingdom Halls Are Not Public Property
There seems to be a misunderstanding in the community of ex-JWs when it comes to how an activist may approach a Kingdom Hall for the purposes of demonstrating, leaving flyers, etc. I thought I would share some information I’ve researched online, as this also came up in 2014 when we had our first Watchtower Victims Memorial Day. I personally have no issues with banners, marches, and other such demonstrations, and know they can be very effective when it comes to activism, but understanding legalities when it comes to our work is vital.
Kingdom Halls Are Not Public Property
Please note this legal definition of “public property,” from the website Nolo.com:
“Property owned by the government or one of its agencies, divisions, or entities. Commonly a reference to parks, playgrounds, streets, sidewalks, schools, libraries, and other property regularly used by the general public.”
Kingdom Halls are not owned by the government and are not paid for with taxpayer dollars; they are owned by whoever has their name on the deed, whether that’s a local elder, a corporation under which the Watchtower operates, etc. That makes them private property.
The Watchtower having tax-exempt status also does not make them public property; they are still not owned by the government and your tax dollars did not build them. They may not be paying their fair share of taxes, very irritating to many of us, but that is a completely separate issue from being public property.
Another common misconception is that Kingdom Halls are available for public use at any time, that they are public property and the public can go on their grounds at any time, because they open their doors to the public. This is also incorrect; when a business or individual opens their private property to the public, this falls under what is called an “implied invitation.” Note this legal definition of what is meant by an implied invitation, from Definitions.Legal.com:
“The rule of implied invitation may be stated as follows: invitation, as distinguished from mere license, is implied by law only when the visitor comes for some purpose connected with the business in which the owner or occupant is there engaged, or which he permits there to be carried on, and there must be some real or supposed mutuality of interest.” [Peebles v. Exchange Bldg. Co., 15 F.2d 335, 337 (6th Cir. Tenn. 1926)].
What this is saying is that you are invited onto the premises 1) when and how the owner of the property “permits” it, 2) for business to be carried on, and 3) for the purpose connected with that business.
This “implied invitation” applies to all businesses that open their doors to the public; Target stores, 7-11, a restaurant, etc. They open their doors to the public but are allowed to limit that invitation to you, or “permit” you on the premises, when they so choose. This “permission” can limit your access to areas of their property, so a restaurant can tell you that the kitchen is for employees only, etc.
The “purpose” of opening doors to the public also needs to be noted, from a legal standpoint. Target opens their doors for the public to shop, so someone doesn’t then have the right to walk inside and start playing a tuba, or set up a tent and start a campfire. That is not their “purpose” and doesn’t serve this “mutuality of interest.” Target, 7-11, a restaurant, etc., all have the right to limit your activity when on their property if it’s not in their “mutual interest.” They can tell someone to stop standing in the entryway to hand out sales flyers, decide if a bloodmobile can set up in the parking lot, and tell that person with a tuba to go home. Opening their doors to the public doesn’t mean that their business is now public property and the public can do whatever they want on their grounds.
This applies to Kingdom Halls. You will first note that their signs outside say that the public is welcome to their posted meeting times; it doesn’t say it’s open 24 hours a day. They have the right to set this limit. The public is not welcome to elders’ meetings, pioneer schools, etc., or to just wander onto their grounds at any time of the day. Jehovah’s Witnesses also have the right to say that if you’re not conducting the business for which they’ve opened their doors, or aren’t there for the purpose connected with their business, you need to leave.
Before you object, note too that this right also applies to you as a homeowner; if you have a garage sale or yard sale, you are technically opening your property to the general public. However, the public cannot then say that they have the right to go into your back bedrooms, go through your checkbooks, linger on your property after the sale is over, etc.
With all this in mind, what then determines trespassing on Kingdom Hall property? Note the legal definition of trespassing, from ExpertLaw.com:
“A trespasser is a person who goes upon the premises of another without an express or implied invitation, for his or her own purposes, and not in the performance of any duty to the owner. It is typically not necessary for a defendant to establish that the trespasser had unlawful intent in making such an entry.”
This is important; you don’t need to be on the property for “unlawful intent,” meaning to cause property damage, spray graffiti, or create a disturbance for your visit to still fit the legal definition of trespassing.
Some might question if there is a need for a “no trespassing” or “private property” sign in order for their visit to be considered trespassing. First of all, note the legal definition above. It says the “premises of another.” It doesn’t say that it needs to be posted or made obvious to you. If you don’t own the property and have no reason to think it might be public property, a court might say that you had every reason to think it was “the premises of another.”
If you tried to argue before a judge that there was no sign saying that a Kingdom Hall was private property, he or she might ask if you have signs everywhere around your yard stating that your home is private property. If not, you might be asked why another person should be required to put those same signs on their property.
Note too that a court might ask why you didn’t consider other reasonable indications of a property being private, such as a fence, a sign in the front saying that it’s the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. These are things you might face in court if you were to try to argue that the property didn’t have a sign so you shouldn’t be charged with trespassing; bottom line, don’t rely on that argument to get you out of a trespassing charge, as it might work for you but it might not.
But Jehovah’s Witnesses Knock on Our Doors
If Jehovah’s Witnesses can cite you for trespassing if you show up to a meeting and are disruptive or are handing out flyers in their parking lot, what about the fact that they knock on other people’s doors?
First, remember that the definition of trespassing above states that a person is acting “for his or her own purposes.” You may think this should automatically apply to JWs since it’s their own interests they’re serving in preaching, but the courts have recognized that legitimate salespersons, political canvassers, and preachers are offering you something that may serve your purposes as well as theirs, and they have the right to their sales pitch under “freedom of speech” laws. Whether or not you’re actually interested is not the point; the law recognizes that they won’t know if you’re interested or not until they approach you with that offer. This is unlike someone demonstrating on private property, as it’s reasonable to conclude that demonstrators are not offering the owners of that property anything they may be interested in.
Note too a legal precedent that was set about trespassing in the case of Robert’s River Rides v. Steamboat Dev., 520 N.W.2d 294, 301 (Iowa 1994), where it was determined that trespassing included the “wrongful interference with one’s possessory rights in [real] property.”
The term “wrongful interference” is important when determining if someone is trespassing the minute they step foot onto your property, or if they’re knocking on your door for legitimate business. Canvassers, Girl Scouts selling cookies, and Jehovah’s Witnesses can come to your door and not immediately be considered trespassers because they are not interfering with your use of your property by simply knocking on your door; they are approaching you with legitimate business that they feel may be of interest to you, and a knock on your front door is not considered “interference” with your property rights. (To read more about the rights of canvassers, salespersons, and religious converts, see this page and this page.)
This doesn’t mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses have unlimited rights to your property or your time; as soon as you ask them to leave, they need to do that, or lingering could be considered “wrongful interference” and, in turn, trespassing. Their “legitimate business” ends as soon as you tell them you’re not interested in their product or message.
This also offers some protection to anyone who enters a Kingdom Hall for any purpose other than to sit and listen to their sermons; that person would have limited protections against trespassing charges for simply setting foot on the property. As an example, activist Bo Juel visited a Kingdom Hall in 2014 because of threatening letters he was receiving from someone he suspected was a JW (see this video for the whole story). Despite the fact that he was there for something other than to listen to their sermons, he was conducting what many would consider legitimate business in wanting to talk to an elder about the situation, and wasn’t creating an “interference” with their property rights. If they asked him to leave, of course it could become a matter of trespassing after that, but the laws that protected his right to simply enter the Kingdom Hall and ask for a conversation with an elder also protect Jehovah’s Witnesses, Girl Scouts, and others when they simply knock on your front door, asking for a conversation about their business.
Demonstrations, Film Crews, etc.
What about demonstrations, film crews, and other such situations and scenarios? Aren’t these protected by free speech laws and laws that protect the right to “peaceful assembly”?
First note that demonstrating, “peaceful assembly,” making a film or even filming the evening news doesn’t “trump” the rights of someone who owns private property. Freedom of the press means being able to freely report the news, not freely walk into someone’s yard, walk into a store after hours, go through a person’s bank account, etc.
When it comes to filming from a public sidewalk or across the street, I don’t know the legalities involved and would assume a film crew would find that out for themselves. A media attorney can tell you the rights you have when it comes to filming something or someone in public, with no “reasonable expectation of privacy.” There may be laws about how far away you need to be, what you can and cannot film (such as not zooming into an open window or filming persons on their own private property), and so on.
Also, remember that in many areas, you need a permit for certain types of demonstrations, and these permits also don’t give you unlimited rights. Note this page, which says, in part, “…the director is to deny a permit if the expressive activity would violate the law, create a risk of injury or damage, interfere with vehicular or pedestrian traffic…” So, even with a permit, you cannot block traffic in and out of a Kingdom Hall, block public sidewalks, etc.
Local regulations may also limit the use of megaphones and anything that would create a noise disturbance. There may also be restrictions as to the time when you can start, etc.
In short, call your city clerk’s office if you plan on any type of group activity or official march, protest, demonstration, etc. Without a proper permit, you can face an arrest or fines and it would have nothing to do with Jehovah’s Witnesses and their property, but with the laws and requirements set out by your local city, county, etc.
But … But What About … And This Other Thing …
Before you cry foul or argue any of these points, remember that I’m not making up these things myself; I’m simply sharing information I found online from legitimate, legal sources, hoping to clear up this misconception about Kingdom Halls being public property. The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what any of us online think about trespassing; it only matters what the police and courts think, right?
Remember too that I’m only sharing this information to protect my fellow apostates; I am loathe to tell anyone what to do when it comes to activism, and that’s not my purpose here. I’m also not trying to defend JWs in any way; read this website and you’ll see that I’m obviously not overly concerned with their comfort levels. However, it does no good to demonstrate, picket, hand out flyers, etc., if you wind up in jail because you mistakenly thought that a Kingdom Hall was a public building. If you don’t get proper paperwork for a film before filming begins and the JWs have its distribution shut down, you’ve wasted all that time, money, energy, and research. Isn’t it better to find out the legalities of filming, demonstrating, picketing, and whatever else before you even leave your house, so you know your rights are protected?
I also want to make it clear that this information in no way condones the actions of any JW who may assault anyone on their property, trespassing or not, which is what happened recently in New Mexico (this post). As I bring out in that post, it’s clear that the elder didn’t even ask the film crew to leave but just started smacking them down without any warning. I find that disgusting and just “par for the course” when it comes to the abusive nature of elders that I saw when I was “in,” and think the elder was downright lucky that those men on the film crew weren’t armed or violent themselves.
However, that being said, remember that many areas in the U.S. have what are called “stand your ground” laws. This allows someone on their own private property to defend themselves, even with lethal force, if they feel they are being threatened. My personal opinion of these laws and how they’re applied are immaterial, as are everyone else’s. Again, it’s how the courts apply these laws and if they would accept such an argument as a defense. I would hate to see an activist get beaten (or even worse), and then see the JW in question go free because they applied these “stand your ground” defenses, and the courts buy this argument because someone was technically trespassing. It might sound ridiculous and may even make your blood boil, but we’ve seen worse things happen in court, haven’t we?
Again, for your own safety and for the sake of effective activism, find out your rights beforehand when it comes to visiting a Kingdom Hall, picketing, filming, etc., and then decide what you want to do; if you have a question about some action, call a lawyer or consider erring on the side of caution. Some ex-JWs might actually want to organize a “sit-in” or other such demonstration, and as long as you make an informed decision and are prepared for the consequences, I would never tell someone what to do or not do. Just don’t make up rules about the law yourself or go by random Reddit users or anything other than legitimate, legal sources of information. Listening to online friends tell you what you want to hear is a surefire way to get served with legal papers or end up in handcuffs, and I personally am saving all my bail money for the next time Bo is in town. True story.