06 May 2008

Rude Preachers and Private Tents

Situation #1:
Should a preacher be allowed to preach in a public park?

Sure.

Can he use a loudspeaker? Without any kind of permit? How loud can he be? Can he curse all the people in the park to Hell? Can he play obnoxious music and sing a really bad version of "We Are the World"?

How would you like it, if in the public park by your house, this guy came every Saturday of the year and broadcast his message so loud so as not only to make the park unusable, but to wake your kids at bedtime?

That is the situation in Washington Park. Nothing deters this preacher. His response to complaints is that the park is his church, and the people in the park are his congregation.

I understand that during special events, the park may be filled with loud music and that this can be disruptive to those who live nearby. I can even understand that a festival for example can be held in the park, and that during that event, the park is not fully usable by the public. In my view it is the combination of the loudness and the ubiquitousness of his use, that makes him rude.

Situation #2:
Should a wedding party be allowed to rent a pavilion in a public park?

Of course. Many pavilions in neighborhood parks are specifically built for such use. A few years ago we attended a wedding at the pavilion in Ault Park, and it is used for such events throughout the summer. Of course the public is not invited to such events.

Situation #3:
Fountain Square:
 

This was an event for the organizers of the Flying Pig marathon. The general public was kept out of the tent. But, this is Fountain Square, not a neighborhood park. It should not be rented out like a pavilion at a neighborhood park.

However, this was for an event that is obviously beneficial for the city. I don't think a private business can fill the square with a tent (or can they)? This has become a contentious issue in NYC's Bryant Park.

In my opinion, private parties should be held in an adjacent hotel ballroom. Either that, or make it a public celebration in which everyone is invited.

I don't want to get into discussion about the First Amendment and Free Speech and Assembly, I just think that the key point of a public square, is that it is open to the public! People who use this public square must stay civil (relatively quiet) and events must be open to the general public. Tenting, or fencing-off areas for ticket-holders only, or holding events that are very loud, should be rare and should be minimally intrusive to the other users of the space.

27 comments:

dave said...

One of the suburbs of Detroit implemented a noise ordinance to stop the Muslim call to prayer (in arabic) from playing every Friday evening.

CityKin said...

^that is similar to church bells and is usually pleasant, although I have heard some atrocious recorded bell music. The Samuel Bell Home for the Blind on Elm Street used to play bad chimes at noon.

Chris S said...

I think one of the most haunting moments of my life was visiting Istanbul and hearing the call to prayer echo from every location over the city - a city I might add that approaches NYC for size. One of the few truly haunting moments in my life.

That said, that preacher is not quite in the same category as the call to prayer. Sometimes I think he is just waiting for his free police ride to the alternative park of his choice.

As far as the tent on Fountain Square, one thing I can say is that it really deadens the life on the square. I have a picture up on my blog of Saturday night on the square with the Reds playing (normally this draws a fairly decent crowd). But on that night, the square was dead, and I attribute that largely to the tent cutting it off.

Ross said...

Regarding the noise:
Cincinnati Parks Board Rule 1 regarding public meetings and rule 27.a.2 limiting "unreasonable noise"
http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/cityparks/pages/-4534-/

Also check out section 910 in the city municipal code
http://www.municode.com/resources/gateway.asp?pid=19996&sid=35"

VisuaLingual said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VisuaLingual said...

chris s, here is a bit more about the Washington Park preacher.

djc said...

It's only a matter of time before the WP Preacher grows so many nodes on his vocal chords that he will be unable to shout. No PA system known to humanity can compensate for this. Just ask Stevie Nicks.

catherine said...

Ross,
Unfortunately the police are rather fickle about their enforcement of the noise ordinance in the park. Sometimes they run him off, sometimes they don't come at all. I have had officers tell me they cannot enforce it because they do not have a decibel reader and so cannot tell if he is exceeding the limit. If I can clearly hear it inside my house with all my doors and windows shut, it is exceeding the limit. I have also been told that the more people that call the police, the more likely it is that they will respond.

So, for the advent of the outdoor preaching season I would like to make a proposal: If you can hear the preacher inside your home call the police. If they don't respond within 30 minutes, call again. If we all call consistently hopefully they will respond more consistently.

This summer, let's give peace a chance.

DP said...

I think the free speech vs. community resource debate is an interesting one. The only 'letter to the editor' I've ever written was to the NY Times regarding a group that wanted to have a 100,000 person political protest rally on the Great Lawn in Central Park, which the city had just spent $1M+ renovating and took great care of (some of the nicest grass in the city). Part of my argument was that the primary purpose of the park was as a recreation resource for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Admittedly I haven't seen (heard) the WP preacher, but it sounds like he is interfering with the intended function of the park. In urban neighborhoods, especially ones that could maybe use a boost in terms of livability, the limited amenities need to be protected aggressively. Let the man preach without amplification or make him find a new location (maybe Fountain Square...).

Chris S said...

Catherine, one suggestion that helped for me when I was having troubles with a neighbor who worked on motorcycles at all hours and had all of his biker friends over to party was to buy a decibel meter. They aren't that expensive, and if there are enough folks who think he's a nuissance, if everyone chips in, its really very cheap (four of my neighbors and I chipped in to buy this)

It was successful because we could show the police that it was at an unacceptable level.

Visuallingual, heh, that story you linked squares exactly with the times I have seen him and have seen the police talking to him (seems before the symphony events it gets taken care of quickly, you walk by and one minute he's there and then on the walk back he's gone)

CityKin said...

No one has a problem with the private tent on Fountain Square? I certainly hope this isn't going to be more common.

As to the preacher, I have never seen the police take him away. Its hard enough to get them to ask him to turn the volume down. The guy I'm talking about is there every Saturday from about 4 or 5pm to 8 or 10pm. He plays the same loud crappy music and has 2 or three fans.

VisuaLingual said...

Mike, I'm bothered by the Fountain Square tent but, as it's not my community public space [well, I know it is, but I don't live right there; no one does], it's a different context for me. Washington Park is my neighborhood park, and the fact that it has the playground, pool, benches, etc. for neighbors to use makes the preacher a more immediate nuisance [also an ongoing one]. Fountain Square feels more like a corporate plaza than a neighborhood hangout and, as much as a private-event tent seems like misuse of a public space, it really doesn't seem that different from the targeted programming that's already in place.

A week and a half ago [I think], I got woken up on a Saturday by one of those sermons. It was 9am or so, and I know that's technically during the day, but being woken up with threats of eternal damnation... Well, talk about getting up on the wrong side of the bed. It morphed into, or was replaced by, R&B, which was sort of amusing.

BTW, when I was growing up, the only way we could get the cops to follow up on a noise complaint was by adding "and I think I saw a gun." I'm not advocating deception but, unfortunately, noise is only a nuisance, not a danger.

Anonymous said...

The man shouldn't be allowed to use any sort of amplification -- not even a hand-held megaphone. End of story. Not just this person, but anyone looking to use public space. I'm not limiting anyone's right to free speech, but let's use some common sense when protecting said right.

bsherm said...

Wow... I live on top of Prospect Hill on the west side, and I have definitely heard the WP preacher. I have always wondered what that was.

Anonymous said...

Are we sure that Fountain Square is still a public space? I'm under the impression that it's more like a shopping mall now.

We may think of shopping malls as public spaces, may experience them as public spaces, but they are privately owned and nothing goes on there that the management doesn't first approve. For example, you're never going to see a political rally or demonstration at a mall. Or a homeless person. Or a preacher. Or a "adult" store. Or, fill in the blank. Of course, that's why suburbanites like 'em.

Anyway, I thought that Fountain Square had been handed over to a private group to manage, effectively privatizing it. In my more paranoid moments, I think that remodeling it was a diversionary tatic to cover up this change of hands. (The remodeling itself seems to me to have accomplished very little, especially for as much money as was spent. And don't tell me about all the new programming and activities, they all could have been scheduled on the old Square).

Anyway, someone please correct me if I'm wrong. I would like to be wrong.

Blue Ash Mom

Chris S said...

Yup, thats the same preacher guy. On a few occasions (pre symphony when I've been strolling around waiting for the show to start/visiting shops) I've seen the police amicably "move him"

As far as fountain square, see my post above, but, I actually don't have a problem with a private event on the square. I do have a problem with the giant private tent because it completely divides and deadens what has become a very vibrant area. For example, I'd have no problem with a cordoned off area in the open. This attracts people to see whats up and doesn't make it look and feel like there is a "division"

CityKin said...

BAM;
You will see all of the things you mention on Fountain Square (except the adult store). I don't think it is like a shopping mall at all.

I think the new layout is much better in several respects notably the toilets and the gravel/tree seating area. I liked the old, sloped pavement, but apparently the flat surface is much more flexible for different functions, such as the ice rink and tents. Hey, tents are fine with me, as long as the event is open to the public.

Fiona said...

I don't really mind the tent. It's on a portion of the square, not the entire space, and they probably took out a permit that the city requires to have a function on the square.

If you object to the tent on Fountain Square, do you object to the library sale tables? Because that's what started the problem.

There had long been an ordinance that prohibited LEAVING anything up on the square overnight. That ordinance was rescinded when the public library started having used book sales that spanned a few days and wanted to leave the tables set up overnight.

Once the restriction was lifted, the KKK applied for a permit that allowed them to erect a cross. That elicited a variety of responses, from protestors pulling the cross down to Sister Alice Gerdeman and the Justice and Peace Center organizing prayer vigils around it to "take back" the cross.

Then the competing religious traditions stepped into the fray. To combat the city Christmas tree, a Jewish organization requested a permit to erect a menorah for Hannukah. And the People for the American Way requested a permit to erect the popular holiday display, the "wall of separation of church and state"--a plain white painted A-frame wall about 4 feet high, which really tickled my funnybone for some reason.

So in light of this history, erecting a temporary tent for the Flying Pig runners on part of the square just doesn't bother me.

CityKin said...

Chris;
Part of the problem with the tent was that it had sidewalls AND the entrances were guarded by security. I could see a roped-off area for ticketed events on rare occasions, but I think it is a dangerous path. See how Bryant Park has devolved so that huge tents render the park unusable for months at a time.

CityKin said...

"The man shouldn't be allowed to use any sort of amplification -- not even a hand-held megaphone."

I agree. Electronic amplification should be the trigger to require a permit. That would definitely make enforcement a lot easier. Several of the officers have told me that the loud preaching is allowed without permit, as long as he does not assemble more than 50 people.

VisuaLingual said...

Loud preaching is allowed without permit, as long as he does not assemble more than 50 people.

So, he can be loud as long as he's ineffective. I love this.

Jimmy_James said...

^ LOL! Hilarious.

I don't live in OTR, but it seems like you guys are going about this the wrong way. The cops can't do anything but enforce what's on the books. The problem is that the ordinance wasn't designed to cover this type of thing, possibly written before this type of sound amplification was available/affordable. So petition city council to update the ordinance. If you get enough residents to sign on, and tally the amount of response calls that this generates for the police, I'm sure they'll look into it. Making OTR more attractive is a major goal right now, and if they can see a clear dollar amount that this is costing the city's police force, you'd have a very strong argument for a minor change to an existing city ordinance.

Blue Ash Mom: I agree that the new Fountain Square was expensive, but a lot of that expense was tied up in maintenance work that would have been required anyway. The new square is certainly an improvement over the old square, and the city's investment has manafested into a much larger private investment by businesses. So, even though it was pricey, I believe the renovation was necessary and a wise choice for the city.

Fiona: I was totally unaware of that history. Thanks for bringing that up. People often laugh when others question what seems to be a benign change, but what you've outlined is the very definition of a "slippery slope".

CityKin said...

Assembly of 50 people triggers the requirement for an event permission. The park noise rule below is open to interpretation by each officer:

"No person shall ... create noise or sound in such a manner as to disturb the peace and quiet of a park or as to interfere with or disturb other park patrons."

Note, no decibel level. I assume requiring permission for amplification would be seen as too strict, and would in effect outlaw radios etc...

Chris S said...

Permission for amplification triggers all kinds of scrutiny (in the free speech constitutional sense).

As far as the noise level, one step in the right direction is to update the ordinance to reflect established norms for decibel levels. The other is to get a court to interpret the established level. In the case where I was dealing with the bikers, there was no explicit decibel level, but since it was in excess of 120db in my back yard (above the threshold of pain - although my ears are a bit more hardened then that after years of working concert security) so it was a no brainer to show the police officers the db reading and a reference that says "this is dangerous loud" (even at 90/100db we are talking hearing damage loud)

Yeah, my problem is actually the tent and the fact that it really had the effect of closing off the area. The walls of the tent are what caused this I think. I actually saw tourists who weren't going to go to see the fountain because it "seemed closed." Its rare I chase after strangers (they must have thought I was nuts) but I couldn't help but overhear them, so I suggested they go check it out (They ended up eating at Rock Bottom)

5chw4r7z said...

Blue Ash Mom,
Couldn't disagree with you more, what ever they spent on Fountain Square was more than worth it.
I consider it my front yardso I would say I'm on the Square 6 to 7 times a week, and not just walking across it I mean spending time there.
So, no its not a mall, and a bonus with the new Square I'm not held hostage by church groups every Saturday morning/afternoon.
bring the kids down on a Saturday night for movies this summer and if you still feel the same way we'll hug it out ok.

Fiona said...

I have to echo the appreciation for the new Fountain Square. It was money well spent and has generated so much interest and investment from private businesses it is now a much more interesting place to go. I appreciate that the Rock Bottom Brewery stuck it out through all the construction commotion.

The people complaining that the Fountain was disrespected when it was shunted off to the side are the ones driving past on their way out of town. If you're walking, the fountain is smack dab in the middle of things. And the movies on Saturday nights are a lot of fun.

Paul Wilham said...

I'm moving to Cincinnati this summer from Indianapolis. It would seem that residents should meet with the parks board and council and perhaps the police watch commander for the area to write a more effective ordinance. There are ways to "legislate" this problem out of existance and it would seem a stronger ordinace prohibiting amplification without a permit and a fine for those violating the ordinace would be appropriate. We had a "tent preacher" who thought he could use a vacant lot in our neighborhood that one of his parisioners owned. We used existing zoning ordinaces to shut him down.