Vigilante justice and widespread confusion comprised public debate following the Main Street Crestview Association’s unusually negative Christmas parade. A preacher who denied Santa Claus’ existence and shouted anti-gay slurs and eternal damnation from a megaphone drew the public’s outrage.
Hundreds passionately expressed their views — and search for truth on how to prevent similar occurrences — on the News Bulletin’s Facebook page. Many put on their journalist caps and used one of the news media’s powerful tools — Google — to trace Save Me from the Fire ministry’s roots.
They were interested in finding answers, and find them they did.
Readers messaged the newsroom with several tips, including questionable content on a student minister’s Facebook page — we didn’t report on public images that featured a World War II reenactment with compelling visuals because they were out of context and didn’t directly pertain to the parade — and the Washington-based organization’s statement to Crestview residents condemning their furor.
But while some sought answers, others picked fights.
Well meaning parents posted various scenarios of how they would “handle” the ministers if they returned next year. Threats of vigilante justice rivaled the ministry’s own in-your-face style and ultimately undercut their purpose.
Then the fallout really began.
Save Me from the Fire’s website, savemefromthefire.org, states that it’s “currently undergoing scheduled maintenance” — for several days now. James Forrester, the street preacher, deactivated his Facebook account.
These actions counter the organization’s fearless nature.
A few days following the parade, Forrester announced on the News Bulletin’s page that Save Me from the Fire would participate in the 2013 parade. More than 100 people commented on his statement before it vanished along with his Facebook account.
Did a chilling effect occur?
Despite overwhelming support for First Amendment rights, several supposedly free-speech advocates — a number invoking mama and papa bear privileges — publicly expressed violent scenarios they’d initiate if the ministers return.
But any speech that theoretically threatens another person’s freedom of speech negates such sentiments, doesn’t it? In this case, it seems, the overwhelming negativity that ensued, doubtlessly hastened by the numerous threats, led to these sites’ closures. After all, firebrand fundamentalists like this ministry live to spread their message, not squelch it.
In the week following Dec. 1, several questions have surfaced, but only one thing is clear: In the immortal words from “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
You can’t fight hate with hate and expect constructive debates or positive strides.
We have no reason to believe Save Me from the Fire’s ministry is not genuine. We may disagree on members’ methods of delivering the Gospel, but no current evidence suggests ministers see themselves as anything other than prayer warriors.
Ad-hominem attacks won’t work, either.
Some readers wrote that President Barack Obama’s re-election “really fired up the radicals.”
Not everything is about politics, race or Fox News, folks. No evidence suggests the ministry’s motivation stems from non-biblical sources.
Can we please discuss ideas with different-minded people in a civilized manner? Writing hateful remarks about people shouting hateful remarks brings chaos, not progress.
Finally, can local experts be more transparent and engage in that conversation?
A number of local attorneys and city officials’ refusal to offer expert opinions on this issue fueled the newsroom’s frustration in its search for answers on the First Amendment factor.
None of the knowledgeable sources we asked would register a brief, obviously non-binding opinion on whether the Main Street association could screen parade applicants without fear of a lawsuit. Surprisingly, some sources we spoke with confused the association with a public entity.
Thankfully, Laurel Hill City Attorney Daniel Campbell weighed in. (See Attorney: Parade could tighten guidelines.)
Additionally, I turned to a high school classmate-turned-attorney, who gave insight.
“First Amendment protections apply only to protection against actions of government actors. Discussing a private individual depriving you of First Amendment protections is simply confusing the issue,” Matt Shelby, a Daphne, Ala. attorney, said.
That’s all we asked for — and it shouldn’t have taken a call outside the city to obtain.
Is this a more complex issue with extenuating factors to consider? Certainly.
But can several years of case law inform similarly quick opinions to help the public understand this issue better? Undoubtedly.
Early when this controversy erupted, it seemed clear, to me anyway, that someone unaffiliated with a private organization’s publicly held Mardi Gras parade couldn’t invite him or herself in the barricaded procession.
Similarly, a private organization’s publicly held Christmas parade should be able to set restrictions. That doesn’t infringe on someone’s right to stand on the public square and spout off. It just declares that the person spouting off isn’t within the barricades as a featured guest.
The newspaper staunchly supports the First Amendment and appreciates our service members who fight to protect our freedoms. However, we understand its limitations. For instance, you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You can’t incite riots. You can’t crash a private party.
These days, when erroneous internet memes penetrate the public consciousness and cause fights based on emotion rather than fact, we must quickly analyze the issue and help readers understand it in context.
Emotion-based rumors spread like wildfire on the internet. Before you know it, illusions become facts.
Regardless of this issue’s outcome, let’s learn from the community’s amateur journalists who Googled before posting; those who searched for answers rather than axes to grind.
They took the first step to bridging that communication gap.
Contact News Bulletin Editor Thomas Boni at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbeditor.
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