A stretch for free speech?

Free speech seems to have its limits. When the selection committee for the Dr. Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award announced that anti-abortion activist Helen Gordon would be one of three people honored this year, the protests began.

Even Marketta Laurila, the award’s namesake, recently asked that her name not be associated with any award given to Gordon, Xpress has confirmed.

“I was just shocked,” says 1998 award recipient Lady Passion, a Wiccan priestess. Giving the award to someone who, she feels, fosters intolerance and hate, “violates the spirit of the award.” Passion quotes the current standards of the award, which she says is meant to recognize those who “stand up for the right of free speech in ways that promote social justice, racial harmony, community betterment, and self-determination.” It was established to honor Marketta Laurila, a former UNCA Spanish professor who was denied tenure after voicing opposition to U.S. policies in Central America.

Explaining her own opposition to Gordon’s recognition, Passion argues that Gordon uses a bullhorn and derogatory language in conducting what the anti-abortion group Life Advocates calls the “sidewalk counseling” of women, their escorts and health officials visiting FemCare, a local abortion clinic. “I don’t think all free speech is created equal. Speech that fosters intolerance and hate is not free speech,” she declares. “The whole … award is going to falter on the shores of this decision.”

Passion’s not alone in these sentiments, but others who objected privately to Gordon’s selection declined to comment publicly — including award co-founder Monroe Gilmour, who e-mailed his repeated objections and recommendations to committee members.

Life Advocates Director Meredith Hunt nominated Gordon this year. Last year, he was nominated, but not considered for the award because of his anti-abortion message, he says, going on to claim that specific language about “self-determination” was added to the mission statement to avoid consideration of anti-abortion activists. “I felt the award [in past years] was less about free speech and more about certain causes. Here we have people who support free speech yet are reticent to give the award to someone they disagree with,” he says. Gordon deserves the award because she fought government’s attempt to hinder her right to speech, says Hunt. She was cited and arrested, not for the content of her sidewalk counseling, but for using a bullhorn, which violated Asheville’s noise ordinance. “The city abridged her right to free speech,” Hunt emphasizes.

Selection committee member Evan Mahaney didn’t want to comment on the brouhaha over Gordon’s award, but relates, “My vote [for Gordon] was strictly [based on] her bucking the city noise ordinance.”

A decisive majority on the awards committee apparently felt the same way; the vote was 8-3 in favor of giving Gordon the award.

Committee member Andy Reed confirms that Gordon was recognized because of “her challenge to the [Asheville] noise ordinance, not on the content of her anti-abortion sentiments.” Her selection — and that of gay couple David Roberts and Chad Sizemore, who were confronted by a man yelling homophobic epithets, tracked down the perpetrators, and followed through with a court case and conviction — was meant to stir dialogue on free speech, he reflects.

“It’s not an easy or simple issue, and there was no good solution in the end,” Rusty Sivils comments. He participated in an Aug. 6 awards-committee meeting that addressed Gordon’s recognition and the heated response it has drawn. Those who had supported honoring Gordon “felt good about giving the award to someone who wasn’t of the usual ‘progressive’ people,” he reveals. But opponents had demanded such steps as rescinding the award altogether, canceling the scheduled Sept. 15 award ceremony, and/or removing Laurila’s name from the award to Gordon.

The committee decided to cancel the scheduled ceremony and grant Gordon a “special award” — the Constitutional Challenge Award, Reed reported on Sept. 7. And, in October, the awards committee will meet to discuss the controversy and the deeper issue of exactly what the award is meant to honor, when it comes to issues of free speech.

“We pushed the boundaries of the award,” says committee member Shirleigh Moog. Gordon was recognized “purely for the free speech part, for standing up to the city, not for the content of her message,” Moog observes. For her part, she hopes the controversy doesn’t diminish recognition of Roberts and Sizemore, but does stir people to “fine tune their thinking on free speech. If you don’t like what someone says, will you still stand up for their right to free speech? [That question] really makes you sit down and do your thinking. Things that push your head and your boundaries are good.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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