LFUCG work sessions and council meetings have been unusually lively this summer (LexTran funding, the sidewalk debate, library audits), and yesterday’s worksession was no exception. It just turned out to be far more dramatic than anyone was expecting.
Yesterday was the first reading of the proposed budget, beginning July 1. The front page of today’s Herald-Leader above the fold reports at some length on California developer George Krikorian’s visit to Council yesterday to introduce himself, since they will be on break when his proposed $70 million multiplex development for Angliana hits the Planning Commission. (You’ll be reading more about that in Ace.) He sought to defuse the proposed TIF-money request by beginning the process amicably. The downtown building inventory was also presented by Bettie Kerr, and discussed at some length, with Vice Mayor Jim Gray recalling similar 1990s studies that had identified buildings on the Dame Block as significant—a block that he now characterized as “deceased.” The downtown Master Plan advances on to Council on Thursday for first reading.
It was a big news day, and it appeared to be winding down when Louis “Shoeshine” Cobb stepped to the microphone for his usual “closing comments” during the public comment section.
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Regulars in LFUCG Chambers (or anyone who’s been downtown) are familiar with Cobb and his trademark dreds, his improbable t-shirts, and his rapid-fire shoeshine sales spiel (typically accompanied by unsolicited sermons) that you may encounter anywhere from the Kentucky Theatre to Cheapside, even if you’re wearing sandals and obviously in no need of his services. He’s a Lexington fixture, somewhat in the same way that “James Brown” and “umbrella guy” are fixtures. In 2006, he was the subject of the documentary, Can’t Stop the Shine. He began his comments yesterday by asking Mayor Newberry and the Council, “have you seen my movie?” (He asks them that a lot.)
At Council, it is evident within the horseshoe that he’s a barely tolerated nuisance, who wraps up most worksessions with the usual three-minute diatribe du jour in the “public comments” section. It’s rarely related to the day’s agenda or the work on the docket. Sometimes he lectures Council Members that they’re all racists and Lexington is a racist community. Sometimes he preaches a few non-sequiturs about peace and love and goes on his way. Sometimes he tells everyone present they’re going to hell. He almost invariably opens with a variation on a “glory to God” comment.
Yesterday, he seemed interested in Lexington’s place on the world stage for the upcoming World Equestrian Games. And while he reiterated his intent to “shine,” he added that visitors to Lexington would encounter a city of “utter homosexuality and faggotry.” He added that God and/or the crowds (it wasn’t clear which) wouldn’t tolerate “men holding hands on the streets in front of kids across from a fountain…” threatening, “there’s a day we’re gonna have to answer for this.” And then he called everyone a racist and left.
It happened fast. And he talks fast. Everyone reacted after the fact, because there honestly wasn’t time while he was speaking.
But CM Diane Lawless spoke up as soon as there was an opportunity. She made it clear that homophobic hate speech should not be tolerated, and asked for procedural remedy. (Her comments didn’t advocate censorship, or step on the first amendment.)
The Mayor and several Council Members responded that they found Cobb’s comments equally offensive—and cited other examples—but weren’t sure what (if any) restrictions would be constitutionally, legally appropriate.
Council Member Ed Lane made a motion to ban Mr. Cobb from speaking. Motion died for lack of second. In later comments, CM Doug Martin said he had failed to second the motion because he didn’t want to take away an individual’s free speech based on what he might say. CM Martin said today on Twitter (screen name is @DougMartin10th): “My point was Council shouldn’t permanently ban someone (never say never), but there has to be consequences for hate speech.”
CM Crosbie asked for legal clarification. Staff members reminded Council that public comment is not mandated, or constitutionally required, and it wasn’t always an option at LFUCG. The Council voted to offer public comment. Most of the debate, to date, has centered around whether it should be a 3-minute or 5-minute limit. (Public Comment was added to the Thursday docket at the beginning of the Tuesday worksession, long before Cobb took his usual place at the microphone.)
Council Member Gorton pointed out that citizens already have ample access to their Council Members via email, phone, and (in one instance) showing up at her door at 7 in the morning. CM Crosbie and CM James both stressed the importance of maintaining the accessibility inherent in the Public Comment section, live and in person.
CM Beard asked Logan if the ACLU would be “saddling up their horses ready to come down to see what we’re gonna do” adding…“Not that I fear the ACLU.” He echoed CM Lane’s sentiments that they were fed up with Mr. Cobb and ready to send him a clear message. (Beard suggested perhaps they could all do a 180 in their chairs when he begins to speak. But he didn’t make a motion.)
CM Stinnett clarified thru Roberts Rules, that the Chair (the Mayor) is well within his rights to interrupt any speaker who is out of order. Under Council Rules and Procedures, for example, the speaking policy states that, “Every council member shall not use unbecoming or abusive language.” Council Members are also instructed to refrain from personal attacks, and to confine their comments to the issues on the agenda.
Vice Mayor Jim Gray thanked Council Member Lawless for her comments, and said that he regretted not speaking up in the past, when there had been attacks far more vitriolic than yesterday on the gay community. CM Jay McChord added that he too should’ve spoken up on those occasions.
CM Lawless reiterated that this wasn’t personal, that this wasn’t about a philosophical or religious difference of opinion—the Council sits through those every day. She was seeking procedural remedy.
As usual, Twitter and Facebook both picked up on the discussion—mostly asking for more context. One commenter said, “I’ve known Shoeshine for years. He’s part of the Downtown flava, so is Rupp, Victorian Square, AceWeekly, you, me. That’s why were here.” It was pointed out that no one advocated locking Mr. Cobb up—but that using hate-speak in Council couldn’t be tolerated. JTShelton asked, “didn’t he spend his time a couple weeks ago talking about accepting people who are different from us?” Several participants suggested that Religious Commentary (which occupies most of Mr. Cobb’s discourse much of the time), also has no place in City Council because of the separation of church and state.
(A separate, tangential thread then developed about citizens’ role in the decision-making process at LFUCG. But the shoeshine discussion was not a discussion about decision-making. As Dr. Nick Kouns pointed out on Twitter: “I’m not sure this hate speech makes an interesting case study [for decision-making]. Personally, hate/bigotry aren’t that difficult to understand. They’re bad. Period. I’m pretty open-minded, but there’s no intrigue in this for me. It’s dangerous and demeaning. There’s already a mechanism in place to handle it: Robert’s Rules of Order.” )
The conclusion drawn by Ace was, “Hate speech can be fairly gaveled. If the n-word would get gaveled, the f-word typically would too. Point of order.”
It was reiterated that if the CM guidelines spell out that they must stay on issue; refrain from personal attacks and abusive language, members of the public who request a forum to speak could be issued the same guidelines, without trampling anyone’s first amendment rights.
Regularly scheduled summer television is mid-reruns. But if you’re not watching GTV3, you don’t know what you’re missing. As Andrew Wyllie wrote, “it’s certainly better than any of the other garbage that’s on TV. I laughed, I cried, I got angry and I got very excited! It’s like real reality TV!”