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Street preachers cause a stir at downtown Lincolnton events

Staff Writer

The issue of street preachers at downtown Lincolnton events was brought to the forefront once again at the end of last week’s Lincolnton City Council meeting.

Fred Jarrett, chairman of the City of Lincolnton Steering Committee, took the opportunity during the segment of the meeting designated for public comments to share his experiences from the two most recent Alive After Five concerts.

“I’ve attended the past two Alive After Five concerts,” Jarrett said. “During both, I was personally interrupted from listening to the music and seeing the bands play by street preachers coming up and down the road. They were pretty much a nuisance, hollering and distracting many people from what they came to see. I observed the street preachers approaching others that were there to enjoy the music and I also even saw some small children kind of run and hide when they were around the street preachers because it appeared that they were very frightened by the unwelcoming environment that they were in. I also saw one person go up to one of the street preachers and pretty much get up in the preacher’s face. If another guy hadn’t been there to pull that person away, I don’t know where that would have went.”

After sharing his story, Jarrett proposed a buffer zone ordinance as a potential compromise for the city to consider. A buffer zone ordinance would likely prohibit the act of street preaching within a predetermined boundary set around the perimeter of the downtown event. Buffer zones have been implemented in the past to protect abortion clinics throughout the country from protesters, but a 2014 Supreme Court ruling deemed one such ordinance in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

“We as American citizens have Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion,” Jarrett said. “I think some cities have created problems for themselves by enacting laws that infringe upon freedom of speech and freedom of religion. There are other things that aren’t in the Constitution that a police officer can arrest you for like disturbing the peace, loitering and disorderly conduct…I’ve done a little research and there’s a thing called a buffer zone ordinance that would create areas where everyone can have their own event at the same time in the same area.”

The city has no plans of proposing a buffer zone ordinance at this time, but the steering committee will likely be tasked with researching potential compromises between street preachers and patrons at downtown events, according to City Manager Steve Zickefoose. The steering committee — which includes representatives from the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development Association, Lincoln Economic Development Association and other local organizations — was founded with the intent of streamlining efforts between local government, support organizations and citizens to advance city objectives.

“I’ve proposed the possibility of putting this as an item before our steering committee for their discussion since it involves a lot of stakeholders that are invested in downtown,” Zickefoose said. “If that committee sees this as a priority item then they can review ordinances established by surrounding municipalities and bring their findings back before the city council for consideration.”

The Lincolnton City Council considered public speech permits earlier this year, but backed down from the idea following a public hearing in March. If imposed, that ordinance would have implemented a permitting process for public speakers, including street preachers, wishing to speak at city events.

“We’re trying to walk a tightrope to try to make sure that we don’t violate anyone’s rights, but at the same time we want the general population to enjoy our events downtown,” Lincolnton Mayor Ed Hatley said. “We’re hoping that we can come up with something that will satisfy both parties and so far I haven’t seen it, but there may be a good compromise out there that everyone can live with.”

The permit ordinance proposed earlier this year stated that any individual wishing to conduct a public meeting or deliver an address on a street or sidewalk of the city must be located a minimum of 50 feet from a street corner, not interfere with the orderly movement of vehicular or pedestrian traffic and not become so loud or violent as to annoy or frighten people using the streets or sidewalks.

By all accounts, well-known Lincolnton street preacher Alan Hoyle is not one of the men causing a stir at the recent Alive After Five concerts. He was, however, vocally opposed to the proposed public speech permits and is not in favor of any other legislation aimed at limiting free speech.

“A lot of people do a lot of things different and some people do things wrong,” Hoyle said. “If somebody does something unlawful, instead of involving the whole county or whole city, you deal with the person at hand who did the wrong and that’s what the legal system is setup to do…It’s like gun permits, which are unconstitutional. They say that if everyone has a permit then we’ll know who did the crime, but a criminal is never going to get a permit so you’re only striking down citizens and their inalienable rights. Let’s address the issue and the person, and correct the situation in the way that it’s supposed to be corrected. When you’re scared to address the person and the issue, and you just try to stomp it all out, then that creates a bigger problem for everybody.”

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