“Whores of Babylon! Whores of Babylon! Whores of Babylon!”
Thousands of downtown visitors en route to both the CMA Music Festival and Nashville’s Fourth of July fireworks celebration have heard those welcoming words the last few years.
The chorus of Christian-inspired chants comes from a group of so-called street preachers, who channel the message through bullhorns just in case folks can’t hear them hollering. Their origins are unconfirmed, but the group is believed to be PinPoint Evangelism, an outfit led by one Kerrigan Skelly that organizes demonstrations across the country as self-anointed “Missionaries to America,” according to its website. The group could not be reached for comment. Nonetheless, members’ targets are clear: scantily dressed women, presumably the ones who — given the nature of those two events — sport cowboy boots, Daisy Dukes and spaghetti-strapped tops.
In case the shouting goes unnoticed, the street preachers also hoist signs featuring an apocalyptic reminder: “Warning God Haters Fornicators Thieves Liars Drunks Mockers Adulterers Sodomites Judgement.” In an enlarged red font, the signs place an extra emphasis on the words “Warning” and the non-standard spelling of “Judgment.”
Stationed at prominent locations around Lower Broadway and near the entrances to the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, the street preachers are the subjects of plenty of bewildered looks, finger-pointing and laughs from those who take part in two of the city’s hallmark festivities.
But for Nashville’s tourism apparatus, the scene is an unnecessary nuisance and a noisy disruption, an inappropriate display for a city often described as one the nation’s friendliest.
Thus, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau is hoping to legislate its way out of the problem. The group spearheaded a bill — sponsored by Metro Councilman Mike Jameson — that would tighten the city’s noise ordinance to prohibit the use of personal sound amplification on public right-of-ways downtown. If approved, the group could have demonstrations, just not with the aid of bullhorns.
Though the legislation was conceived as a remedy to quiet the boisterous street preachers, its broad language has caught the attention of a handful of First Amendment rights advocates. Already aware of some unintended consequences, Jameson has put the bill on temporary hold while he, the CVB and the council’s attorney explore a few tweaks. They’re toeing a thin line between regulating noise and adhering to constitutionally protected free speech.
In the end, finding a viable solution could be tricky.
Free speech questions
Hoping to impose some order to downtown nightlife, the council in 2009 passed an update to the city’s downtown noise ordinance, which established an 85-decibel cap on prerecorded music in the central business district. Live music was exempted from the new rule in an attempt to “keep the [Music City] brand alive,” said Butch Spyridon, president of the CVB. In effect, outdoor speakers blaring karaoke songs were no longer permitted, but Broadway’s country groups could continue to jam away.
The street preachers have created a new challenge, particularly for the CMA Festival, which recently incorporated several free music events. Hence, protesters can now mingle — and, in the process, interfere — with festival goers.
“We understand and support free speech,” Spyridon said. “But when we’ve worked for decades and spent millions to create major events and draw people in for economic development, there’s got to be some sense of reason within the permitted areas that sure, if someone wants to protest, that’s fine, but if they want to try to ‘out-noise’ the event, then where are the rights for the event holders?”
According to Spyridon, the street preachers typically cover key downtown locations in two or three groups consisting of two or three people each. Their message always has the same doom-and-gloom tone.
“It’s not the welcome to Music City that we would like to see, certainly,” Spyridon said. “We understand and respect the law, but we also want the law to protect the rights of the event organizers.”
The bill, which originated with the CVB, would make it “unlawful for any person to operate or allow the operation of any personal sound amplification equipment on any public right-of-way.” Such equipment is defined as a “radio, tape player, compact disc player, digital audio player, bullhorn, television, electronic audio equipment, musical instrument, sound amplifier, or other mechanical or electronic sound-making device that produces, reproduces, or amplifies sound.”
The noise ordinance update “would not prohibit the operation of personal sound amplification equipment when used with headphones or earbuds that do not emit sounds plainly audible to anyone other than the operator of the personal sound amplification equipment.”
Recognizing some obvious flaws with the legislation, Jameson, who represents downtown and East Nashville on the council, requested and was granted the deferral of the legislation in December on second reading. For starters, as currently drafted, the vague legislation would prevent a citizen from listening to a radio or boombox at Riverfront Park.
The bill is scheduled to be back before the council on Jan. 18, but its language is almost certain to change before then. Jameson said he plans to seek feedback from the Metro Department of Law about the initial drafting of the bill before presenting it to the council in January.
“The Convention & Visitors Bureau has had repeated difficulties with these groups that are shouting epithets and moralistic judgments at CMA Festival goers,” Jameson said. “We’re exploring ways of curtailing any offensive behavior, but doing it well within First Amendment protections.
“It is a razor-thin balance between First Amendment protections, and allowing tourists and visitors to have quiet enjoyment of music festivals,” he said.
Council attorney Jon Cooper said local governments have the authority to regulate excessive noise, but it must be done in a manner that protects free speech.
“The question is whether prohibiting amplification devices would restrict or make it difficult for people to get their message across,” he said.
Because Metro’s downtown noise ordinance exempts live music from bars, Cooper raised an important legal issue, pointing out that it “would be difficult to compete with the bar noise if you were not allowed to have a microphone or a megaphone.”
Cooper said he’s still unsure how the bill might be amended moving forward. Already, a handful of skeptics have chimed in to council members to express their concern about the bill.
Sarah Passino, who teaches English at Vanderbilt University, said she worries that the ordinance’s application to public right-of-ways would include the public park outside the Metro Courthouse, where demonstrators often meet prior to council meetings.
“I’m concerned that our public spaces are being curtained off to the extent that names like ‘public plaza’ are becoming a misnomer,” Passino told The City Paper.