Chicago settles lawsuit with student evangelists
Wheaton graduates win free speech case
The city of Chicago has approved a $205,000 settlement in a free speech lawsuit involving four Wheaton college students evangelizing in Millennium Park. U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey sided with the four students in a 2020 ruling, but the city didn’t approve a settlement amount until last week.
Matt Swart, Caden Hood, Jeremy Chong, and Gabriel Emerson, then students at Wheaton College, regularly evangelized in Millennium Park, specifically around the world-famous Cloud Gate sculpture commonly known as “The Bean.” The students filed suit in 2019 after a new city ordinance banned “the making of speeches and the passing out of written communications” anywhere within the 24-acre park except on sidewalks and Wrigley Square, a small northwest quadrant.
Mauck & Baker partner John Mauck represented the student evangelists. “A public park epitomizes a public space,” he told WORLD in 2019. “You have all the other places that are off-limits to the evangelist—hotel lobbies, restaurants, department stores, and office buildings—so free speech and evangelism are pretty much restricted to sidewalks and public parks.”
Mauck filed the case of Swart et al v. City of Chicago in September 2019. In February 2020, Blakey ordered a temporary hold on the city ordinance. He made it permanent by September 2020. The Chicago City Council finally approved a settlement of $205,000 on Wednesday, earmarking $5,000 per plaintiff and about $185,000 for attorneys’ fees.
Plaintiffs Caden Hood and Jeremy Chong spoke with WORLD and said they both plan to invest their restitution money into Christian ministry. “I made a personal vow that I wouldn’t keep a penny of it, and that I would use it all for the sake of the gospel,” Chong said. “My No. 1 desire is to plant a Reformed church in Chicago.” Hood said he “agreed ahead of time that any money that we get is going to go to ministry.”
Hood graduated from Wheaton in 2021 with a degree in economics and now attends Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Chong graduated from Wheaton in 2022 with degrees in philosophy and communication and now attends Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Ind.
Chong said that he would still be glad he and his fellow students filed the lawsuit even if they lost because it gave him a platform to talk about his beliefs. “While being cross-examined in federal court, I was able to share the gospel, and many were able to hear it,” he explained. “The main reporter for our case in The Chicago Tribune, he—in quoting us—included the gospel … multiple times.”
“God never fails,” Hood said. “I have the newspaper article on my wall just to remind me of that time because it helps me remember how God is faithful.”