Trash talk deserves rebuttal, not muzzle

Published June 13, 2007

At last year's gay pride festival in St. Petersburg, a few hate spewers showed up amongst the 50, 000 attendees to spread their homophobic message via bullhorns and big signs.

This was a sad scene for an otherwise positive celebration in a town generally known as gay-friendly - the mayor's contention that he doesn't support St. Pete Pride's "general agenda" notwithstanding.

We live in a place that still struggles with the basics of tolerance and diversity. Look at Tampa, where the mayor embraces the gay community but the County Commission came out strongly against gay pride.

So recently, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to try to curtail similar ugliness at the upcoming June 30 gay pride event.

Specifically, the event permit will say protesters with signs or megaphones must go to a specified protest zone instead of inside the festival, or risk fines or arrest. Protesters without signs or bullhorns can still walk around and talk trash.

Police and the City Council deserve to be lauded for trying to make the day better for the thousands who attend. And some restrictions do make sense.

If you can ban coolers or dogs from a festival, a ban on megaphones seems reasonable. You don't take away a person's First Amendment right to say what he thinks just because he can't scream it loud enough to be heard two counties over.

But the concept of a protest zone - also known as the oxymoronic "free speech zone" - should give us all pause. Even if the folks being corralled are the ones you'd just as soon not hear from anyway.

Or maybe especially when it's them.

Purely applied, protest zones limit free speech. They can protect a politician or cause from the appearance that there's dissent out there and give the world the impression no one opposes that politician or cause.

How I hate to sound like I'm siding with the likes of the sorry crew that showed up to rain on last year's parade.

But signs are a form of speech. And the world ought to know about those people invoking God for their cause, and that this is the kind of thing gay people in America have to deal with.

I called Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida and a longtime activist who knows something about peaceful protest.

She talked about a delicate balance between the safety of the people who are the subject of a protest and the First Amendment rights of those holding up bullhorns and big signs.

She also talked about getting creative. She told me about an event in which a supporter could pledge cash for every protester who showed up, for every sign waved, for every slur uttered.

That meant those against a cause actually made money for it. Sweet, no?

But back to free speech.

First Amendment lawyer Luke Lirot says the true test is when you can grit your teeth and defend the free speech rights of Nazis or the KKK - people who stand against the very thing you are.

"The neutral and consistent application of the principle, " Lirot says, "is the only thing that gives it any value."

He couldn't have said it any better with a bullhorn.

Sue Carlton's column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.