The Lincolnton City Council is once again wading into dangerous waters in the debate about the street preachers that regularly attend downtown events.
The Council will hold a public hearing in December about a proposal from the City of Lincolnton Steering Committee that would criminalize some forms of speech. The proposal is dangerous, and shouldn’t be brought to a vote. If it does come to a vote, the councilmen should do the right thing and vote against the proposal.
According to a story by staff writer Matt Chapman published on the front page of today’s edition, a proposed amendment to the city’s code of ordinances for downtown events “would prohibit ‘abusive or threatening language that actually disrupts a special event or festival, or that abuses or threatens another person in a manner likely to cause a fight or brawl at a special event.’” Another proposal to amend the city’s noise ordinance would outlaw “any person or group of persons willfully making any loud, raucous and disturbing sound that — because of its volume, duration and character — annoyed, disturbed, injured or endangered the comfort, health, peace or safety of reasonable patrons of ordinary sensibilities in the neighborhood or central business district.”
The intentions of the steering committee are understandable. Loud, aggressive street preachers are a reality of downtown events. They certainly detract from the experience of some attendees of the street festivals and concerts that the city and the Downtown Development Association sponsor and their methods are outdated and, frankly, their style of evangelizing likely alienates more potential believers than it draws into the fold.
But none of that matters. Those who are advocating for these proposals should be wary of the broader implications that they carry. Street preachers might be a “nuisance,” but their actions are hardly worth potentially throwing away the single most important civil right afforded to citizens of this country — the right to free speech.
Consider the possibility that one of our local politicians behaves so egregiously, or that a more prominent and polarizing state or national figure comes to town, and it sparks a protest in downtown Lincolnton. These ordinances could easily be used against those protestors, all for the sake of preserving someone’s “ordinary sensibilities.”
There’s no good legal solution to the issue of downtown street preachers. Any ordinance the city could pass would be either over-broad or ineffective. The best solution is one that can be taken by every person who attends a downtown event and is offended by the street preachers — do you dance, drink your drink, listen to your music and ignore them.