Opinion

Downtown plaza is a venue for free expression

Free speech disputes never develop over pleasant and quiet conversations. They erupt over language that people consider offensive, because of its content or presentation or both.

That's surely the case in the lawsuit filed against the city of Modesto by a local Christian who claims he's not being allowed to preach as he wishes in Tenth Street Plaza.

There should have been better communication on both sides to settle this before it reached the courts. It's too bad that Kevin Borden, a real estate agent, did not approach the City Council members, individually or collectively, to air his complaint that his free speech was being restricted. After discussions with staff, he sought legal assistance from the Alliance Defense Fund, whose attorney wrote to City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood in April. The Alliance lawyer says she never heard back from Wood and so filed the lawsuit last week.

Wood told reporter Sue Nowicki that her intent is "to resolve this as efficiently as possible." We hope so. She should have responded earlier; this isn't the kind of issue for the city to waste a lot of attorney time defending.

The First Amendment right to free speech clearly extends to Borden and every other American. He's allowed to be in a public space and say what he has to say.

Borden's attorney claims he "has no interest in hassling people." But comments from theater and restaurant customers downtown indicate that some are feeling hassled. One wrote on modbee.com: "I've seen this guy, and I find his actions completely offensive. It may be legal, but it is offensive nonetheless. And it has nothing to do with Christianity. I'd be just as mad if this guy was screaming at the top of his lungs to sell me Amway! Yelling at people is rude -- period."

While this is, at its heart, a free speech issue, it's also generating a secondary thread of comments about whether this in-your-face confrontational style is an effective way of sharing a religious message. Most agree it's not.

But there's little doubt on the free speech argument. The city and Borden should work out an arrangement that provides him the access he is due without disrupting downtown businesses or interfering with the people patronizing them.

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