Bill to quiet street preachers warning of the apocalypse could have unintended results

Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 10:05pm
Image courtesy of CVB

“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.

20 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 1/3/11 at 2:10

Given a choice between the homeless and the street preachers I prefer the street preachers.

By: Loner on 1/3/11 at 7:16

Good morning, Nashville!

The new year brings no new LTE, but this article should draw some comments from the usual suspects.

As I read it, this proposed law would prevent street musicians, (buskers), from performing in Music City.

I play the sax on the street, when the weather is right and I'm in the mood. To be sure, a saxophone is a mechanical device that produces and amplifies sound. Would saxophone playing in public be illegal under this law?

Apparently so. The phrase, "musical instrument" is included in this draft. If this law goes into effect, then Nashville should hand over the title of "Music City" to New Orleans, or some other deserving community - a city that has a little more tolerance and a lot more cool.

These obnoxious street preachers should be considered an undeveloped tourist attraction; squeeze it and make lemonade....don't ban street musicians in Music City, USA.

By: navin_johnson on 1/3/11 at 9:00

YOu mean I can't use my Mr. Microphone downtown anymore?!?! How am I supposed to pick up the good-looking chicks later when I'm cruising in my convertable?

By: jimmer on 1/3/11 at 9:20

It seems the permit for special events should enable the "event organizers" to approve the activities under the special event time frame and physical parameters. Considering the special events organizers must have control, and are responsible for their special event, they should be able to regulate activities within this special event. Maybe updating the permits could handle this problem.

By: mediservrx on 1/3/11 at 9:28

Typical Christian extremists... Judge everybody while they manipulate the law so they can't be judged
“Warning God Haters Fornicators Thieves Liars Drunks Mockers Adulterers Sodomites Judgement.”
This said by people who were not a product of the Immaculate Conception (fornication) mocking the specific group of women, men, whomever, as they try to live their lives. Who are they to Judge someone just because of their dress or proximity to a party. They will be judged just the same as you or I and I wouldn't want to have to explain all that hatred to God

By: Loner on 1/3/11 at 9:57

These crazy gentiles are behaving like would-be, Old Testament, Hebrew prophets, not followers of Jesus of Nazareth. According to New Testament accounts, Jesus loved his fellow men, he did npt try to convert them to his way of thinking, by way of intimidation or bullying tactics......except for the bullwhip incident involving the money-changers in the Temple. Other than that, the man-God Christ was charming and they say.

This so called, "Pin Point Evangelism" sounds more like "Pin Head Evangelism". These pin-heads are actually pricks on a prickly mission. Let us hope and pray that some of these pricks are actually federal agents keeping tabs on these passionate crusaders for decency.

Can't we ship these sign-carrying, bull-horn bullies over to the Holy Land, where their zeal may be more appreciated? I'd pitch in some dough for a deal like that.

By: AmyLiorate on 1/3/11 at 10:43

Loner is on a roll today, good morning Loner et al.

I happen to have a card from "John McGlone" of PinPoint I guess he passed me on the corner a couple of weeks ago, I laid it in the corner I guess for the novelty of a street preacher with a business card. He can be reached at john@pinpoint...

The card shows someone with a Trust Jesus dayglo-green shirt carrying the sign seen above.

I'll disagree with them “God Haters Fornicators Thieves Liars Drunks Mockers Adulterers Sodomites" because as best I can tell God hates the sins, not the sinners. But hey, I don't have a business card so what do I know about God's thoughts.

Overall a couple of preachers on the street is nothing new. Is a guy like this really worthy of squashing even more of our rights as a whole? Already we see kids getting fined for having unlicensed Lemonade stands. Isn't a part of tolerance to accept a few loons in the crowd.

By: PromosFriend on 1/3/11 at 10:43

Is it legal for a person (or persons) to stand up in a theater and yell out religious (or otherwise) statements and hold up signs without getting thrown out or busted for disturbing the peace? Can these people do that at a Titan''s or Preds game (and would they be that stupid)? A public street may be a different horse altogether of course. However, if we can regulate sound levels from cars and motocycles why can't we regulate the sound levels of these street preaching nuts? One could argue that the loud mufflers are a form of speech ("Hey, look at me, I'm stupid!"). Maybe lower Broad merchants could sponsor competing demonstrations by pole dancers to counter the shouting preachers. I mean, who would make more noise, three or four loudmouths, or a crowd of guys whooping it up for the dancers?


By: stevebest2 on 1/3/11 at 10:58

Whether the know it or not, the street preachers are passing Judgement and the only one who can do that IS God!!! "Let those without sin cast the first stone"!!!!

By: stevebest2 on 1/3/11 at 10:59

Whether they know it or not, the street preachers are passing Judgement and the only one who can do that IS God!!! "Let those without sin cast the first stone"!!!!

By: global_citizen on 1/3/11 at 11:07

Sometimes I don't know what to make of these people.

Part of me thinks they are sincere but misguided and truly believe their form of "evangelizing" will help save souls rather than repulse people with their obnoxious tactics.

Another part of me thinks they don't really care about saving souls at all, that they are really just immature fringe personalities who have a pathological craving for attention in any way they can get it. This is where the Fred Phelps groups fits in.

Beyond these questions though, what makes these people think I really give two flips about their theology? There are hundreds of religions and among those, thousands of fractious denominations. And every single one of them is a bunch of hooey. It's modern day mythology. I'm not interested in living my life according to what some cranks think some imaginary deity will it to be. No thanks.

Although there is no evangelical approach that would make me consider believing in religious mythology, the approach of these so called street preachers is absolutely the worst. They will repulse even people who are open to their message just because their tactics are so abrasive.

By: HokeyPokey on 1/3/11 at 11:09

I'm thinkin' none of you have spent time during Finals Week in Pensacola.

That's when the Pensacola "Christian" College wannabees stand on street corners shrieking Jesus to one and all. Part of their assignment to get ordained, I guess.

Part I can't figure out is how they get those bibles to hang the way they do, do they get the wimmen-folk to chew the leather covers into submission?


By: joe41 on 1/3/11 at 1:50

Nashville is not alone in this dilemna.

By: yucchhii on 1/4/11 at 8:28

To an extent I agree thaat street preachers should back off a litle bit. a lot of them don't understand that to preach to people can be a sensitive thing. While many don't want to hear it, to overwhelm them is not a good idea..this is ONE of the reasons why many get turned off to recieving the word of God. If the is a street preacher yelling about EVERYTIME you come by the area, after a short while it gets old. Lots of times it can be like fishing, as you move the bait the fish comes after it..but if you keep it there all the time, many won't bother with it. As for the homeless, they should pay attention to the preachers and know what the TRUTH says about them!! For God so loved the world, he gave his "ONLY"begotten son. That who so ever shall believe in him, shall have EVERLASTING life.

By: budlight on 1/4/11 at 8:36

For God SO LOVED . . . . .

By: Ex Civil on 1/4/11 at 9:27

Beware lest your voice is the next one to be silenced.
Perhaps the FBI, CIA, Military or all three could step in and use the anti-terrorism legislation (severely impinge on all of our civil rights) based the appearance of a conspiracy [more than one person with the same message and sign] holding them without charges, counsel or notification of family in a secret prison, maybe even overseas so that they can be tortured. But wait, suspicion of conspiracy in not necessary, just the suspicion that there might be a conspiracy is sufficient, why are they still around, perhaps their name is not Abdul, Mohammad or Osama. I may not agree with the “street preachers”, choose to wear ear plugs in their presents and find their confrontational behavior offensive, but so long as they do not physically obstruct the public right of way, I will defend the rights of free assembly and speech practiced by the “street preachers” with or without bullhorns.

By: slacker on 1/4/11 at 9:49

Being a fornicator, I feel I'm getting a bad rap.

By: HighlyAnnoyed on 1/4/11 at 11:29

These street preachers are just displaying the blatant retardedness of religious beliefs.

By: NewYorker1 on 1/4/11 at 1:51

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it the street preacher's constitutional right to speak on the streets?

By: yogiman on 1/4/11 at 4:00

It's just one more step to government control. We're rounding that corner now, Folks. Let's see what happens within the next year. My bet would be there will be more.

They're getting to the point of; Don't do as I do, do as I tell you.