The Street Preachers: Do Not Buck The First Amendment

8 mins read

By David M. Taub

Fools who go where angels fear to tread usually regret it. I did and I certainly do. 

In the early 1990s, so-called “street preachers,” acolytes of Rev. Karl Baker, would assemble Saturday mornings on Bay Street in downtown Beaufort. They would park a pickup truck strategically on Friday night, usually in front of Lipsitz Department Store. The next morning, a Baker minion would mount the bed of the pickup truck and, holding a tattered Bible, scream as loudly as he could to all passersby about the word of God. To newcomers and tourists, it was an interesting and entertaining elocution.

To Bay Street merchants, the street preachers were intensely unwelcome. At Christmas time, these self-appointed “messengers of God,” would scream at children that Santa Claus was Satan, scaring the cow-pucky out of them. Many an angry parent threatened to beat the you know what out of the screaming messenger for sharing. 

In early 1991, the “city fathers” were treated to a steady angry drumbeat from local merchants, complaining that street preachers were disruptive and hurting business. Initially, the city tried a velvet glove approach to compromise. Councilman Dr. Tony Bush, a devout traditional Baptist, met with Rev. Baker asking him to relocate his pickup truck pulpit to the far end of Bay Street. They reached a gentleman’s agreement that worked for a short while. Seems only one side was gentlemanly, as the street preachers were soon back to the old pattern of parking in front of Lipsitz Department Store on the Jewish Sabbath and screeching to the unsaved. 

The city’s next approach resembled a baseball bat more than a velvet glove. Under unrelenting pressure from the Downtown Merchants’ Association, council asked City Attorney Bill Harvey to research what could be done to temper the street preacher circus while not transgressing First Amendment protections of free speech. He did, and council revised its noise ordinance, based on a Maryland law that had passed Constitutional muster. We were told that government could regulate “time, place and manner” of free speech. How those words haunt me even today; I wish I had never heard them. And so, into places where angels have feared to tread did we plunge, full speed ahead.

In October 1991, council amended its noise ordinance, which allowed arrests of anyone willfully disturbing neighborhoods or business “…by making or continuing loud and unseemly noises, or by profanely cursing and swearing, or using obscene language.” Almost before the ink was dry on the revised noise ordinance, downtown merchants began calling city police. Officers first warned the preacher that he was violating the city’s noise ordinance. After these warnings, the preacher typically would continue at the same noise level and consequently was arrested. 

On March 9, 1992, Baker and 13 of his minions were found guilty by a Beaufort Municipal Court jury and all were sentenced to a fine or jail. They all chose jail. Many pictures of Baker in an orange jumpsuit splashed across the front pages of the Beaufort Gazette — it made for good sales. I am a great believer in the “Principle of Unintended Consequences;” unintentionally, we made instant martyrs of them. Street preachers obtained pro bono services of a USC Law School professor to represent them, and he promptly filed an appeal of their convictions with the South Carolina Supreme Court; all convictions were upheld in a split decision.

Now enraged, street preachers from all over South Carolina swarmed to Bay Street screaming their support. It was a three-ring circus of such bogus proportions that national CBS News came to Beaufort and wanted me, as mayor, to go on national TV and explain why Beaufort was denying citizens free speech rights. I kindly declined. No way, no how was I going to be that stupid; we had already been stupid enough. Like rabbits, the mistakes by, and headaches for, the city fathers just kept multiplying. Over the next several years a number of lawsuits would be filed in various courts. The city was spending legal fees like a drunken sailor on leave after payday during happy hour. 

Most cases were eventually dismissed and did not go to trial. The final trial before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, was to decide if Beaufort’s revised noise ordinance was Constitutionally valid. That was the bottom line after years of litigation and angry confrontations. The Court announced its decision: “REVERSED IN PART, VACATED IN PART, AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.” This ruling led Beaufort to engage in mediation with Rev. Baker. Just before I left office, we reached a mutual settlement: City would revise, yet again, the noise ordinance, substituting decibel-monitored noise levels as a metric of lawfulness. City immediately ordered lots of decibel meters. 

Esteemed U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings used to tell me, “Mayor, there is no educational value in the second kick of a mule.” How painfully correct — a lesson well learned, and never again did I entertain thoughts about challenging the First Amendment. After almost a decade of arduous and expensive entanglements with street preachers, we were essentially right back where we had started. This fruitless battle was my biggest mistake as mayor; I regret it to this day.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of Karl Baker; I don’t even know if street preachers are still an attraction on Bay Street. Perhaps it is ancient history of a long-ago time of downtown Beaufort’s eccentricities. What I remember most about Karl was that he was short but stocky in build and always wore cowboy boots, which reminded me of my dad, a native Texan who always wore cowboy boots.

And that he led me to regretfully go where angels fear to tread.

David M. Taub was Mayor of Beaufort from 1990 through 1999, and served as a Beaufort County Magistrate Judge from 2010 to 2015. He may be contacted at david.m.taub42@gmail.com.

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