by Leah Waldron
This past Saturday night in New Orleans, nine anti-gay street preachers were arrested in the French Quarter for harassing passersby at the annual Southern Decadence LGBT festival. The protesters— men aged 20 to 45 years old—violated the city’s new “aggressive solicitation” ordinance, which prohibits social or religious demonstrations between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Despite being told by police to stop using bullhorns and disperse, the nine street preachers continued marching down Bourbon Street, yelling anti-gay slurs and making disparaging comments about Hurricane Katrina victims. Fortunately, police intervened and arrested the group—and much of the offensive behavior was captured on video.
Not exactly what festival-goers had in mind for Southern Decadence, but considering the first world in the title, they got a taste of the South.
The Southern Decadence arrests may seem unusual, but violations of city ordinances by anti-gay protesters are becoming more commonplace, and at the same time, protesters’ messages are getting louder and clearer. Between the scratchy-sounding microphones and the pole signs that are twice the protester’s height, the anti-sodomite, pro-Jesus, and anti-freedom message is hard to ignore. Unlike peaceful protesters, anti-gay demonstrators are not satisfied with harassing a few dozen LGBT individuals around them, but want their voice to be heard (and their pun-filled signs to be read) to the heavens and back.
But how far is too far, and how loud is too loud? When an anti-gay preacher reads the entire book of Romans through the mouthpiece of his bullhorn, as Reverend Phillip “Flip” Benham did at last year’s Charlotte Pride festival, should he be arrested for disturbing the peace?
He was, and he should be.
Protesters who are told to quiet down always use the freedom of speech excuse, which, like the second amendment, is often misconstrued. We live in a civil society that will only thrive if freedom of speech is about the expression of an idea, and not screaming to the point of harassment. When the founding fathers drafted the first amendment, they were not envisioning the kind of voice-amplification technology that you can find at Radio Shack for $19.99. If anything, they imagined a man in a town square. Or, more likely, a person politely expressing his disagreement in writing.
When it comes to limiting a person’s freedom of speech to a specific noise level, cities like Charlotte, North Carolina—the site of this week’s 2012 Democratic National Convention—are ahead of the game. Protesters are limited to 75 decibels (a telephone dial tone is 80 decibels, the sound of a toilet flushing is 75), and will be tested by police at 10 feet. New Orleans’s sunset-to-sunrise protest ordinance, as well as Charlotte’s noise level law, have been called a first amendment violation by protesters because it limits their message to just a few surrounding people. And when you have that much hate in your heart, you want to spread it. Now, fortunately, they will be limited to just a few dozen people, who hopefully can move on to a safe distance.
Maybe if anti-gay protesters could quiet the homophobic, closeted voices in their head, we could all get a little peace.