Guest Commentary: Free Speech or Harassment

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Free speech is the foundation of our republic. We don’t necessarily have to agree with what someone is saying – many times we don’t – but the right to expression is something that must be defended.

Having said that, the line between free expression and incitement or harassment sometimes gets blurred. The enforcement of our Noise Ordinance has, I believe, reached that point. A few years back, amplified outdoor music became an issue that severely divided our island and a committee was formed, that I was part of, consisting of the Chamber of Commerce, businesses and residents to hash out an ordinance that was acceptable to all. The plan was to try it for 6 months and see how things went. It worked – and we have been living with that ordinance since then. Council recently decided not to revise it.

Unfortunately, we have an ongoing situation that we didn’t account for that seriously impacts all of our enjoyment of the beach, as well as the opinion of our town that visitors leave with.

During our busiest times and at our special events, small groups of people, portraying themselves as evangelists, appear with their overly large signs, their powered megaphones and, of course, video cameras, on our beach with the intent of disrupting the events and antagonizing our visitors.

They are a business (seen by the business cards they hand out) whose sole purpose is to instigate some form of violence, or other response, that when captured by their ever-running cameras, allow them to generate a First Amendment lawsuit. If you visit their website, they proudly show their videos, the results of their lawsuits and of course, sell their merchandise.

I have personally heard them spew filthy and vile language, directed at women and children – to encourage retaliation from their family members. I have personally seen one of them shove their powered megaphone into a stroller, terrifying the child and angering the parents. How are we to react? The “correct” response is to ignore them, though our visitors are just trying to relax on the beach, or watch some of the Times Square Performers – they are on vacation after all.

Let me be perfectly clear. These con artists have the constitutional right to spew their filth. They have the right to be idiots, and we have to accept that.

Level Playing Field

However, there is an issue here that directly needs to be addressed. Recently, a group of these con artists planted themselves on the beach, next to the Pier, with their backs to the water and their megaphones on high. I was able to hear them clearly from the corner of Estero and Old San Carlos. Our beach visitors were extremely angry and the con artists were engaging some of the beachgoers, trying to instigate a fight. We called Code Enforcement and they advised us to call the Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff’s office told us that they knew of these groups, and that there was nothing they could do, as no laws were being broken, and that they didn’t want to be sued for a First Amendment violation.

I believe that a law, or ordinance, WAS being broken – and that Code Enforcement SHOULD have become involved, as well as the Sheriff’s Office. To comply with our Noise Ordinance, Businesses and Residents having a party or event over a certain size are required to get a special event permit. Events not requiring that permit are still constrained by the ordinance, unless a waiver is applied for and approved by council. Specifically – amplification requires a permit. Yet, these con artists can plant themselves wherever they want on public property and use amplification to broadcast their “message.”  We, the residents and businesses, have to comply with the ordinance – including sending advance notice to residents within 500’ of the “event”, giving them the opportunity to oppose it.

There is no question that these con artists have the right to a platform. The question is – Do they have the right to use Amplification, without having to comply with the same ordinance that the rest of us do? Or, are they allowed to get away with it, simply because they have intimidated the Town and Sheriff’s Office with the threat of a lawsuit? Where is the level playing field? Is the threat of continual lawsuits against the town a tactic that we should use? (Absolutely NOT).

I am not a lawyer. Does the First Amendment also guarantee the right to Amplification? It’s not one of the rights specifically listed. Give them their soapbox. Let them spew their vile, screaming to the heavens with the voices that God (at least the one they claim to be representing) gave them, but…

Make them comply with the same ordinance that the rest of us are willing to comply with.

 

Dave Anderson