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Tennesseans are asserting their First Amendment rights, and winning

10:40 AM, Jul 13, 2013   |    comments
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The Tennessean
By: Brian Haas

Cory Wigal was a young Belmont University student when the city of Nashville decided to shut down a small ministry he helped start in the Church Street Park to help the homeless.

"This seems like a First Amendment infringement," Wigal recalled telling a Metro official. "That was when he invited us to challenge it with lawyers."

Wigal did just that, and he won.

More and more people in Tennessee have been aggressively asserting their First Amendment rights. Whether it's a Belmont student willing to take on Metro, a fiery street preacher suing his way back onto college campuses or even residents of a small community unfazed by the threat that their complaints about water quality could be tantamount to terrorism, people are fighting back on attempts to curb their speech. And, they're getting results.

Just last month, a federal judge rebuked the state of Tennessee for sweeping through War Memorial Plaza in 2011, breaking up protests there and arresting dozens of Occupy Nashville participants. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that the state "violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights in multiple respects."

Even though it may seem like government is cracking down more and more on speech, the lead attorney who represented the Occupy Nashville protesters says it's because more people are speaking out.

"I think it is precipitated by people wanting to speak more. I don't think we're in some period of totalitarianism," said Nashville attorney David Briley. "There's clearly something emanating from the public that is changing the dynamic. And I think it's positive."

The noisy preacher

One of Tennessee's most active First Amendment warriors, John McGlone, hails from south-central Kentucky. McGlone, a preacher with Pinpoint Evangelism ministry, takes his message to public spaces such as college campuses to challenge students from a biblical perspective. His messages warn them about the penalties of sin.

"Jesus was a fire-and-brimstone preacher," he said. "Jesus said, 'If your hand causes you sin, cut it off.' "

But he's run into roadblocks at two public Tennessee universities and is embroiled with the city of Franklin over its noise ordinance.

In May 2012, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tennessee Tech in Cookeville violated McGlone's rights when it kicked him off campus because he didn't get approval two weeks in advance and disclose what he planned to talk about. That same court is mulling over another case in which officials at the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus barred him from speaking because he wasn't sponsored by an official student group.

Amy Ragsdale Blakely, spokeswoman for UT, said she could not comment on the lawsuit and referred general questions about the university's philosophy on the First Amendment to its student handbook.

"The University of Tennessee considers freedom of inquiry and discussion essential to educational development and recognizes the right of students to engage in discussion, to exchange thoughts and opinions, and speak freely on any subject in accord with the guarantees of our state and national constitutions," the handbook reads.

Later, it elaborates on exactly who has that freedom: "Any person sponsored by a registered campus organization is free to speak."

McGlone is awaiting an Aug. 12 hearing to appeal a $10 noise fine and $76 in court costs for speaking at Franklin's Main Street Festival with an amplifier.

For McGlone, his battles aren't about money, but rights. His case against Tennessee Tech netted him $1.

"Even provocative speech is free," McGlone said. "If you say provocative speech is not allowed, then no speech is allowed."

Occupy vs. the state

But by far, the most significant First Amendment battle in recent memory occurred between Occupy Nashville and the state.

In 2011, as nationwide protests against economic inequality grew, protesters took to War Memorial Plaza at the Capitol to bring their message to the legislature and governor. The protesters turned the plaza into a makeshift campground.

In October of that year, the state passed emergency rules banning the tents. On Oct. 28 and 29, the Tennessee Highway Patrol swept in, arresting 55 people for trespassing.

Several protesters sued, saying rights were violated, and in June of this year, a federal judge agreed.

Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, said the significance of that ruling cannot be understated.

"Violating the Constitution is a big deal, and they should be thinking this through. There are some that are close calls that could go either way. This wasn't a close call," he said.

"Someone should be embarrassed and try to make sure this never happens again."

Instead, the state is appealing the ruling.

A spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam said they couldn't comment on the case because it is still ongoing.

Young voice wins out

Not all First Amendment battles are fought in the courtroom. Many are settled quickly as cooler heads prevail.

A handful of Mt. Pleasant residents and civic activists were told May 29 by an official at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that unfounded complaints about water quality could be considered terrorism under federal law. Residents said they felt like they were being threatened into silence.

Instead, they took their story public, leading to statewide criticism, the demotion of the official and an apology and clarification from the agency.

And then there was Wigal, who in 2009 was a Belmont student excited about ministering to the homeless at the Church Street Park. That is, until the city shut the ministry down, saying it needed a permit.

When he applied for the permit, he was denied because the city wasn't willing to sanction religious events.

Wigal got mad and got an attorney. With the help of the ACLU and Briley, they persuaded the city to change the rules, allowing gatherings of 25 people or fewer without a permit.

Wigal said the ordeal gave him more hope than ever. He was only 19, only a student, and he had fought for his First Amendment rights and won.

"I felt for the first time like government was something that I had a voice in," he said.

"To see the government reform was kind of a big deal to me. It felt like, 'Wow, I actually did something more than just vote or raise my hand and vote.' They made some change."

Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8986 or bhaas@tennessean.com.

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