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Committee Announces 13th Annual Free Speech Award Winners

The Dr. Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award Committee recently announced David Roberts, Chad Sizemore, and Helen Gordon as this year's award winners.  Roberts and Sizemore spoke out after being attacked in the Asheville Mall's parking lot by a man yelling homophobic epithets. Gordon, a member of an anti-abortion group, was arrested for violating the city's noise ordinance during her group's weekly demonstration outside a women' s health care clinic.

This year's awards presentation, followed by a potluck dessert, will take place Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. in Jubilee Community Church (46 Wall St., Asheville).  Each year, the award committee honors those who exercise First Amendment rights in ways that promote social justice, racial harmony, community betterment, and self-determination.  Recipients must have, during the preceding three years, taken action toward defending their own or another's right of free speech, persisting despite personal risk.

After an unprovoked assault in the mall parking lot last February, Roberts and Sizemore decided not to remain victims of homophobia by keeping quiet about the attack.  Instead, they called Mall Security and the Asheville Police for help.  Chad Sizemore followed the attacker into the Mall, then followed him to his car, and wrote down his license plate number.  Roberts and Sizemore took photos of David's face, where the attacker struck him several times, and filed an official complaint.

The assailant was arrested and stood trial on March 27.  He apologized and plead guilty of simple assault because North Carolina's hate crime law does not include sexual orientation.  This incident makes clear how intimidating society can be for gay and lesbian citizens.  The award committee felt Roberts' and Sizemore's actions were truly courageous and heroic.  As the nomination form states, "They gave life to the meaning of the First Amendment. Because of their openness, direct approach, and persistence, justice was served."

Helen Gordon's arrest for violating the city's noise ordinance has led to a federal lawsuit against the city, the chief of police, the police department, and several officers in an effort to clarify the definition of protected speech.  Gordon was outside a women's health care clinic engaged in what her organization, Life Advocates, calls "sidewalk counseling." She used a microphone to amplify her voice.  Gordon was warned that she was in violation of the city's noise ordinance, but she persisted in using the microphone to project her message.

In a local news story about the incident, ACLU cooperating attorney Frank Goldsmith stated that there needs to be some "objective criterion in order for a court to be able to restrain the exercise of free speech." One way might be a decibel reading so that the noise ordinance would not be arbitrarily enforced, as Gordon's group claims it was.

Although many members of the award committee disagree with Life Advocates' efforts to discourage women from exercising their legally protected right to reproductive choice, the committee feels that the protection of the right of free speech is pivotal to community betterment.  Ms. Gordon's persistence in the exercise of this right despite the clear risk of arrest has spurred efforts to clarify free speech parameters for us all.

Community organizations and individuals established the Free Speech Award in support of the first recipient, Dr. Marketta Laurila, a former professor of Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  Dr. Laurila was denied reappointment to the university after becoming an outspoken opponent of U.S. police in Central America.  Currently, thirteen organizations sponsor the award.  Representatives from each of the organizations meet yearly to review nominations and choose the award recipients.  For more information, write to the Dr. Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award Committee, c/o Interfaith Alliance for Justice, P O. Box 6468, Asheville, N.C. 28816 or call Shirleigh Moog at 253-4024.

Sponsoring Organizations

American Civil Liberties Union - Western North Carolina Chapter

Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council

Asheville Friends Meeting - Peace & Social Concerns

Citizens for Media Literacy

Fund for Investigative Reporting

Interfaith Alliance for justice

International Link

Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)

The National Writers Union - UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO

Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville - Social Action Committee

War Resisters League, Asheville Chapter

Western North Carolina Alliance

Women's International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF) - Asheville Chapter

Corporate and Contributing Sponsors

American Speedy Printing Centers -  Peter Boggs, Owner

Mountain Xpress - Jeff Fobes, Publisher

The Dr. Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award is a member of the Western Carolina Coalition for Social Concerns.

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