The mayor and commission have agreed to pay Adam Bishop, a right-wing evangelical preacher, $25,000 to settle a lawsuit against the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.
Bishop was shouting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric through a megaphone at attendees of the 2019 Athens Pride Festival when two ACCPD officers escorted him outside the festival area. Bishop later sued ACCPD for violating his rights to freedom of speech and religion. While admitting no wrongdoing, the commission unanimously agreed to a settlement, which included the $25,000 payment and an agreement to more thoroughly train all police officers on how to handle “expressive activity” going forward.
While resigned to settle the lawsuit, commissioners seem to have very little sympathy for Bishop.
“This appears to be a traveling preacher and crew of ‘witnesses’ who interrupt events like Athens Pride waiting for police to make them move,” Commissioner Melissa Link said in a comment to APN. “The hypocrisy of such a scheme is astounding. These are people who very purposefully injected themselves into a public event celebrating freedom of expression with the sole purpose of interrupting said event, and then claim victimhood when their own freedom of expression is challenged.”
While this kind of speech apparently can’t be silenced due to First Amendment protections, Link does have plans to lower the volume. She requested a review of the outdoor noise ordinance, particularly with regards to amplified sound. In her view, devices such as megaphones should require a permit which could be denied in cases like this.
LGTBQ activist Cameron Harrelson agrees. “Every individual has the right to be heard. I believe every individual also has the right to live in a society and city free of fear and loud, public condemnation and hate speech. I look forward to the commission working to address this issue in a productive way that ensures fairness and equality for all.”
Beyond hate speech, Harrelson is concerned more broadly about lack of protection for LGBTQ people in Georgia.
“We are not strangers to rights violations,” he said. “LGBTQ individuals can still be fired for who they love or how they identify, [and] LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness… While I understand the tough and challenging nature of Constitutional rights cases, this is the perfect time for our community to again call on the commission to move forward with the Anti-Discrimination Legislation, the Rainbow Crosswalk and ensuring the citizens of Athens know the government is a welcoming people and the city is a welcoming place.”
Second budget increase for the Board of Elections
The commission also considered a second budget increase for the Board of Elections in this fiscal year, this time for about $73,500. This money will cover unexpected expenses relating to an especially complicated election year. For example, the county briefly switched to paper ballots in March which caused unbudgeted ballot printing expenses, in addition to the previously discussed legal expenses. The Board of Elections staff have also worked an unusually high number of overtime hours stemming from a huge number of absentee ballot requests for the June 9 primary. A large amount of staff time was also needed in working out a plan to separate certain polling precincts that were previously merged due to school construction.
“These precincts should have never been consolidated,” Commissioner Russell Edwards said at the commission meeting on May 19. “We consolidated crowded precincts that resulted in long lines and difficulties voting. It should have never been done to begin with and now we’re having to pay for it once again.”
The funding request also provides money for new absentee ballot drop boxes. One drop box is already available outside the Board of Elections office downtown, and voters will soon have other drop-off options available all over the county. Planned locations include the Multimodal center, ACC Library, Cooperative Extension office and the fire station on Barnett Shoals road.