A group of nine men that attended the Southern Decadence Festival in New Orleans yesterday were arrested and jailed for violating a new city ordinance that prohibits religious and other free speech after sundown on the city’s famed Bourbon Street.
The ordinance, which was passed in October 2011, is called “Aggressive Solicitation.” While it aims to prohibit individuals from selling items or soliciting donations in an aggressive manner, it also includes one sentence that is meant to curb religious and political speech on the popular section of the French Quarter.
Subsection four of the “Aggressive Solicitation” ordinance states, “It shall be prohibited for any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.”
The Southern Decadence Festival, one of the nation’s most notorious celebrations of homosexuality in that it is often is marked by public drunkenness and open sex acts, is held in the city’s French Quarter. Bourbon Street is one of the most populated areas during the event.
Saturday’s situation began when Gary Brown of Fayetteville, North Carolina was speaking to the crowds as dusk had set in. Police immediately placed Brown and another associate under arrest for violating the ordinance.
Seven other men who were holding signs had moved down the street approximately a block away. They were also taken into custody minutes later.
Not all of the names of those arrested were released, but as of press time, they included Brian Cranford, Patrick O’Connell and Larry Craft. Craft regularly speaks at homosexual events across the country much like Southern Decadence. An online video from June of this year shows Craft addressing a crowd at a pride festival in Cleveland, Ohio, who used profanity at one point while decrying a deviant act.
The men were released from jail at approximately 2 p.m. this afternoon.
Ruben Israel of Los Angeles, California was also at the festival, but was reportedly not taken into custody. Israel is most known for being among those that were pelted with stones by Muslims earlier this year at the Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan when he brought a pig’s head on a pole to the event.
Israel said that the pig’s head was meant to ward off Muslims due to negative response that he received from attendees last year.
Ruben Israel (right) and an associate carry a pig’s head on a stick at the Dearborn Islamic festival.
“To the Muslims, a pig or the blood from a pig is like a crucifix to a vampire. I knew the sheriff was not going to assist us because they had not responded to our letters from our attorneys, so I figured we would be on our own, and since the sheriffs weren’t going to be around us, I brought the next best thing and that’s a pig head on a stick,” he told Front Page Magazine. “I think in reality we should have brought 15 pig heads — that would have maybe soothed them a little bit more from throwing debris at us.”
“They can go to any of the other streets they want. Bourbon Street is just a different street because of the large crowds,” stated Nicole Webre, Legislative Director for Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
Former mayoral candidate Leo Watermeier said that he has complained to officials that police are not enforcing the ordinance with consistency, noting that Christians are still gathering on the street after dark to speak out against homosexual practices. He believes that the law was crafted in part due to the significant number of religious protesters that are known to be on the street in the evening.
Webre pointed out, however, that the ordinance does not only affect religious speech, but any type of social or political message as well.
While some state that the statute is a blatant violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, supporters opine that in passing the law, city council “intend[ed] to recognize free speech rights for all citizens while at the same time protecting the coexistent rights for all citizens to enjoy safe and convenient travel in public spaces free from intimidation, threats and harassment that stem from certain types of aggressive solicitation.”
“There’s been a number of states, cities and municipalities that have passed ordinances similar to [New Orleans], but every single one of them have been overturned,” advised Peter Fox, former 17-year Virginia deputy sheriff and patrol officer, who now serves as pastor of Safe Harbor Church and Community Center in Akutan, Alaska. “They’re completely unconstitutional. There’s no justification for it.”
He stated that for police to enforce such an ordinance is to commit a “breach of the law of the land.”
“We’ve all taken an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Fox explained. “When you have someone whose using freedom of speech, it’s our duty as law enforcement to let that speech take place.”
While he did not agree with the approach often used by the men involved, Fox noted that even offensive speech is protected under the Constitution. He pointed to the words of Voltaire, who stated, “I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
“Do I agree [with the approach]? No, I do not,” Fox commented, who supports and engages in street preaching. “Do these people have the right to say this? Absolutely.”
The “Aggressive Solicitation” ordinance was passed unanimously by New Orleans City Council in October 2011. Penalties for violations include a $500 fine and a maximum of six months imprisonment.
Police were not available for comment at press time.