The city of Asheville needs to be careful in any attempts to regulate street preachers at the Bele Chere festival, and any rules must apply to all groups, Katie Parker, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says. She adds that the current situation, with vocal showdowns between preachers and their opponents “sounds like it’s already working the way it ought to work.”
Photo by Jerry Nelson
Bele Chere’s status as a city-run festival affects the city’s options, she notes.
“If an outside organization gets an exclusive permit for a festival, they can keep out people who aren’t advocating for their position, but if the city runs it, it’s different,” Parker says. “If they’re trying to keep out certain people based on their viewpoints, that’s unconstitutional.” Though she adds some permitting process is possible “as long as they’re being equal to everyone who wants to express their views.”
The city is currently examining possible restrictions on amplification, time and place after receiving complaints about the street preachers.
As for suggestions on limiting the places street preachers can speak, “I have concerns — always — with ‘free speech zones.’ If they’re putting the preachers in a certain place, especially if the preachers can’t communicate to their intended audience, that’s a First Amendment violation.”
Parker noted that “content neutral regulations on amplification” are possible, “as long as they’re not saying certain people can use megaphones and others can’t. There has to be a way for the preachers to still reach their intended audience, which is the festivalgoers. The city can regulate, but there have to be alternatives. As long as they’re not assaulting or harassing people, they should be allowed to walk around and express themselves, especially if other people are.”
But, Parker says, “our general stance is the more speech the better” and the current situation “sounds like it’s working the way this country is supposed to work: you’ve got people expressing the point of view on one side and people expressing their point of view against them.”
— David Forbes, senior news reporter