The presence of street preachers (and people opposing or arguing with them) is an annual fixture at the Bele Chere festival. Now, after complaints, the city of Asheville is looking into ways to regulate or curb the activity.
Goldsboro-based street preacher Tony Denson, speaking during Bele Chere 2010. Asheville resident Jeremy Carter, in the background, brandished a rainbow flag in protest of Denson’s remarks. Photo by Michael Muller
A statement from City Attorney Bob Oast reveals the city is looking into the legalities of such a move.
“The issue of street preachers and other activities with first amendment implications (including distribution of leaflets, etc.) arises every year at Bele Chere,” Oast’s statement reads. “There are many competing interests, including individual rights, and we try hard to balance these interests for all festival attendees, and to ensure that the festival is enjoyable for all.”
The statement continues: “We are looking into the issue of the use of amplification (by entertainers, speakers, and other festival participants) and will make recommendations in time to allow for planning for next year’s festival. Any policy or ordinance would likely apply to other civic festivals, not just Bele Chere.”
However, in response to questions about if the city was looking into restricting time and place or just amplification, Oast replied that “it’s everything. We’re looking into it.”
While the annual confrontations are viewed as spectacle or entertainment by some, others have said it deters them from attending the festival or harms the business of the vendors present. In rare cases, the confrontations can become violent.
The issue, including the use of amplification, involves an array of First Amendment issues the city will have to navigate, something Oast admits when he says “this has extensive free speech ramifications.” The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Saia v. New York, for example, holds that prohibiting the use of amplification in a public space is unconstitutional, because it establishes a previous restraint on free speech.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter