Owen Courreges: In defense of fire and brimstone

Print More

Owen Courreges

It’s rapidly becoming clear to me that New Orleans city officials have concocted some bizarre conspiracy to give away all our money and credibility in civil rights lawsuits. Either that, or they think the Constitution is just an old wooden sailing ship and nothing else.

Given their actions over the past several years, either explanation is plausible.

We all recall how former District Attorney Eddie Jordan decided that a strategy of firing white staffers wholesale would not run afoul of basic civil rights protections, just as we remember how former Police Chief Eddie Compass decided that confiscating every gun in the city following Hurricane Katrina would comport with state law and the Second Amendment.

Now into this ignominious category enters Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who sponsored an ordinance designed to crack down on aggressive panhandling that passed the Council this past October which included this little gem:

“It shall be prohibited for any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.”

As l typed that, I believe that the Constitution just keeled over and vomited, then coughed up blood and gave up the ghost while convulsing in a fetal position (metaphorically, of course).

Every attorney knows that under the First Amendment, content-based restrictions against speech are subject to the highest level of scrutiny – “strict scrutiny.'” This means that the subject speech should not be restricted unless there is a compelling government interest involved end the law is narrowly-tailored to meet that interest (i.e., that it does not restrict other speech).

The most obvious problem with Palmer’s ordinance is that the City of New Orleans has no legitimate interest in prohibiting the expression of “social political or religious message(s)” between the hours of sundown and sunrise on Bourbon Street. Although so-called “time, place and manner” restrictions can be constitutionally-permissible, Palmer’s ordinance expressly targeted certain types of speech that are afforded the highest level of constitutional protection.

Apparently, though, this ordinance has not been enforced by the NOPD. In an uncharacteristic display of restraint and discretion, New Orleans’ constabulary has not been arresting street preachers and political activists to enforce the arbitrary, illegal will of the City Council.  At least somebody is looking out for the city coffers.

Alas, there has been one city figure, Leo Watermeier, who has been abetting this clear First Amendment violation. As a formal mayoral candidate and State Representative, Mssr. Watermeier should know better than to endorse any law that imposes content-based restrictions on free speech, but he recently wrote to Councilwomen Palmer and Clarkson to push for the enforcement of this ridiculous, illegal law.

Don’t get me wrong; I understand where Watermeier is coming from.  Fire and brimstone street preachers on Bourbon can be irritating when people are just trying to have a good time.  However, the solution is not to squelch their speech, but to ignore them.  Furthermore, to the extent these zealots are harassing people, blocking traffic or generating too much noise, there are other laws to keep them in check that can be enforced (provided the enforcement is not just a pretext for shutting them up).

When the government tells people they can be arrested merely for speaking their minds in a public place, the censors immediately become the bad guys.  The idea that a person could be arrested for carrying a sign saying “Sinners Repent” on Bourbon after sundown is frightening, more frightening than anything a street preacher could yell at me.

The City Council needs to do more than just ignore the ordinance it passed; it needs to repeal it immediately.  And we need to give our city officials some remedial classes in basic civics.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

5 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: In defense of fire and brimstone

  1. It does seem as though many in city government do not regard the City of New Orleans as being part of the United States, or even as an arm of the government of Louisiana, but rather a law unto themselves. It’s generally most apparent in the justice system, but you can see this attitude in other branches of city government, too.

    The city’s obsession with revenue sources over all other considerations makes me wonder: to what end? Between the sales taxes, property taxes, speed cameras with an eye toward collecting fines rather than public safety, and the protection of the money-making Bourbon Street over the actual residents of the city, I do wonder what all this money is supposed to be going towards. The street repairs are largely (if not completely) being paid for with federal dollars. Crime is as bad as ever. What service, exactly, is the city providing us with all this money?

  2. Owen, “zealot” is code talk for the unlovely assumption that unsolicited expressions of religious opinion are by their very nature socially offensive.

    Yes, fire & brimstone preachers can be irritating (though I sometime wonder if Bourbon St. establishments aren’t secretly encouraging them to reinforce the transgressive frisson desired by so many visitors). In any case, have you been to Bourbon St. lately? There are worse things than being a social irritant in a zone where social pathology is celebrated.

    • Romulus,

      I didn’t mean to imply that anybody who publicly expresses religious views is a zealot (certainly not), but with the ones I normally see in the Quarter, well — if the shoe fits…

      I also agree that there are worse things on Bourbon than the fire and brimstone preachers. The drink prices, for example, are obscene — perhaps more obscene than the actual obscenities (of which there are many).

      • I usually see them talking with people pretty rationally. They signs are big but the ZEALOT charge is being used officially. John the Baptist was a serious zealot. Is he aggravating? Maybe he was to some people.

  3. Let’s not forget the unconstitutional statue of Mary on the Harrison Avenueneutral ground in Lakeview. I understand the church maintains the neutral ground, but the statue shouldn’t be on OUR publically owned land. Move it across the street to the church’s owned land. When will someone take a stance against that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.