Odious hate-mongers can get permits before saving our souls

by Paul Dechene

city-tagAhh summer! I hear the FW Hill Mall had its annual bloom of shouty street preachers last week? I caught the 2013 display and it was certainly… something. My daughter mostly found it terrifying.

Of course, scaring little children seems to be the m.o. for Cross Country Evangelism, a U.S.-based missionary group whose style of community outreach involves standing in a busy public space and shouting about hellfire and damnation at the top of their lungs. And apparently they also veer into hollered commentary on the evils of homosexuality and abortion.

This raised some hackles at Prairie Dog, seeing as this travelling bible sideshow set up right outside our office window. Our neighbours at the Regina Downtown Business Improvement District were similarly peeved but they took matters into their own hands, brave souls that they are, as Leasa Gibbons, the BID’s manager of marketing and communication, brought a “boombox” out onto the mall and cranked some summer tunes to drown out the spittle-infused sermon.

And while a bunch of men aggressively yelling at passersby about how they’re fallen and wicked was supremely annoying for those shoppers and office workers who had to endure it, the fact that the BID — the group that facilitates programming on the FW Hill Mall — chose to provide some improvised musical counter-programming was just going too far for some folk.

Take our pal John Gormley, Newstalk’s resident right-wing call-in host and Conservative apologist, who devoted a segment on his show to the incident. He remarked that while the BID has done good work in the past, they shouldn’t be going around trying to trample other people’s free speech. Later, the headline to his Leader-Post column on the subject informed us that “we don’t have a right to not be offended.”

Thanks for the double negative, John. And the split infinitive.

The BID, meanwhile, stands by their stunt with the boombox.

“That’s something that we are very supportive of. Obviously we don’t want to quash anyone’s freedom of speech, but there were quite a few people who were uncomfortable with the language that was being used and the volume at which it was being used,” says Judith Veresuk, the BID’s executive director.

Of course, if this was an incident involving rogue pilates instructors inflicting unscheduled fitness sessions on Mall crowds, this wouldn’t be an issue because everyone would intuitively understand that to run a public event downtown you need to get a permit and a slot on the city’s schedule.

Anyone who ignores those rules can be asked to leave by bylaw enforcement or the police.

Rules like that help prevent conflicts between events, like we got last Wednesday when day two of Cross Country Evangelism’s crazed harangues intruded on shoppers’ experience of the weekly Farmers’ Market.

Turns out, though, that street preaching might be more like rogue pilates than you’d expect. According to the city’s Parks And Open Spaces Bylaw, events that require a permit include ceremonies, public meetings, assemblies, worship services, demonstrations and other public gatherings.

Some combination of those would seem to fit with what Cross Country was up to.

“They should get a permit first and it would go through the whole approval process. And we would try to work with them. And if they want to conduct their business at a lower volume without harassing people I think that’s fine,” says Veresuk.

Where street preaching and pilates (no matter how rogue) start to diverge is that some could construe the content of Cross Country’s evangelical message as a little hate-speechy — especially the bits where they say gay marriage is a sin and religions other than their own are false.

But according to Elizabeth Popowich, a spokesperson for the Regina Police Service, officers in the field can’t just round people up for hate speech on a whim.

“Someone would have to make a complaint and then we would investigate the complaint,” she says. After that, if the complaint seems valid, the police would have to consult with the Crown before proceeding with any action.

“And that makes sense because you want people who have the broader legal perspective commenting on issues of speech,” says Popowich.

In the end, everything probably turned out the way it should have. No one was arrested, not even our editor, who yelled at one of the evangelists until police asked him to stop. Everyone got to say their piece — at the time and, later, in the media. Cross Country got to express their displeasure with a secular society. Downtown businesses got to express their displeasure with Cross Country. Really, isn’t a cranked boombox just another kind of rebuttal to cranked up religious rhetoric?

And it’s a rebuttal that doesn’t involve swearing, shouting, punches, bombs or legal action. Bonus!

Don’t know why the Gormleys of the world would get their dander up. Sounds like free speech to me.