Anti-gay street preacher loses lawsuit against Charlotte

Preacher says issue is legitimate First Amendment concern

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: April 2, 2013 in News

Rev. Flip Benham, Operation Save America leader, seen at a protest. Photo Credit: Mark Lyon, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An anti-gay street preacher known for his demonstrations against local LGBT events and organizations lost a federal lawsuit last week challenging the City of Charlotte’s decision to deny him a festival permit in Uptown in 2010, according to Charlotte’s WFAE 90.7 FM.

Flip Benham of Operation Save America, whose group also hosts regular protests against abortion, sued the city in 2010 after his group was denied a festival permit. Benham had sought to close a portion of Tryon St. for a week because he said current city ordinances on protests don’t give his group enough leeway. The ordinances require demonstrators to keep noise levels below 75 decibels when using speakers and amplifiers. That rule is lifted if a group has a festival permit.

Benham said the issue is a legitimate First Amendment concern and says the sound restrictions for ordinary demonstrations limit his group’s ability to have its message heard.

“It is the content of our message that the city disagrees with,” Benham told qnotes. “One of the ways to regulate this free speech or to chill it is to arrest people who are in violation of a sound ordinance — a sound ordinance that gives them control.”

The 75-decibel limit, Benham said, can be breached easily.

“When you put a decibel meter 10 feet in front of a speaker you hit 75 decibels talking…just as loud as as you’re talking to me over the phone,” Benham said.

When the city denied Benham’s permit, the group sued and claimed the city had violated its First Amendment, Equal Protection and Due Process rights. He has cited the allowance of other festivals, including a 2007 Mec-Dec Celebration, an event by the Red Cross and the annual Charlotte Pride festival. [Ed. Note -- This writer is a volunteer member of the Charlotte Pride Executive Committee.]

U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen ruled against Benham last week. The judge said the size of Benham’s event didn’t justify a festival permit and that the city didn’t violate Benham’s free speech rights, as Benham and his group members were still free to hold protests and demonstrations on city sidewalks without a permit.

Benham has said the city’s permitting process holds up a double-standard, since groups like Charlotte Pride are allowed festival permits.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann disagrees.

“Those kind of events are an economic development benefit to the city and an entertainment opportunity for tens of thousands of people,” Hagemann told WFAE. “I think it’s a little bit different when you’re talking about a street preacher — and again we respect the street preacher’s rights — but we don’t think the preacher has a right to pump his message into buildings where people are trying to work during business hours.”

Benham told qnotes he will likely appeal the decision or challenge the sound ordinance. If the city wanted, Benham said, it could lift the 75-decibel limit for his public assembly, even without street closures and a festival permit.