A Bible in hand, Gary Birdsong has preached at universities across the U.S., including campuses in California, Arizona, at N.C. State University and at Carolina, he says, encouraging students to read the Bible and giving them a testimony of his faith.
As of March, Birdsong – a former Hells Angels member and the most prominent Pit preacher at Carolina since 1980 – was not preaching in the Pit.
On March 8, Birdsong was escorted from the Pit on a trespassing violation issued by the University’s Department of Public Safety Community Response Unit.
After refusing to move from in front of a reserved space held by the outdoor group Carolina Adventures, Birdsong was banned from setting foot on the campus for two years under a state trespassing statute, said Randy Young, information specialist for DPS. Birdsong appealed the citation and can preach on campus but not in the Pit or on its surrounding steps.
Carolina Adventures had acquired a permit from the Carolina Union to use the space to advertise its spring trip. “I asked him if he could go somewhere else because people couldn’t see my stuff,” said David Yeargan, expedition program manager for the group. “I might as well go home if he was going to be preaching in front of my stuff.”
Only a few feet in front of Yeargan’s tent, Birdsong was preaching about homosexuality, Yeargan said, specifically a drag show, and he thought the preacher’s words were not helping draw support for his group. “This is not going to get people excited about our trip,” he said, so he asked Birdsong to move.
Birdsong said public safety officers told him to go to the other side of the Pit to preach. “So I went on the other side, and they told me I couldn’t preach there neither,” Birdsong said. He was asked to move again, and when he did not, he was issued the citation.
“I said I’ve been preaching here since 1980 on campus,” he said, adding that at other times where there has been a reservation conflict, he has complied with requests for him to move.
Yeargan estimated that 15 students were gathered in the area, but as the conflict escalated, the group grew to about 75. Birdsong said students were encouraging him to stand up for his First Amendment right to free speech, which he felt had been violated. “Well, I don’t think it was right, it was going against my First Amendment,” he said.
Spaces are reserved in the Pit almost a semester in advance, Yeargan said. Don Luse, director of the Carolina Union, said the Pit spaces fill up quickly. The Carolina Union, which reserves, coordinates and mediates Pit activities, said the spaces are geared for students, but if they are not reserved, the space is a public forum, as is the rest of campus, he said.
“Our staff does try to mediate any issues that arise between groups; one group’s taking too much space, one group’s making too much noise, things like that,” Luse said.
UNC law Professor Bill Marshall said regulations on free speech that regulate the time, place or manner of certain speech are legal. “If you had a public forum where everyone could speak at the same time, no one could be heard,” he said. “They have the right and the ability to appropriate the forum so that all voices can be heard.”
Marshall said that as long as the regulation was not issued because of the content of Birdsong’s speech, but rather for his location and chosen time for speaking, the action taken against him was legal.
“As long as it is acting in a consistently neutral fashion, the government can use time and place and manner restrictions,” he said.
After appealing the citation, Birdsong was notified by letter that he would be allowed to speak on campus, excluding the Pit and surrounding steps. He was back the following Tuesday, speaking a few yards from the Pit. He said he has a lawyer, and he plans to contest his restriction from the area.
“I got a right to preach in the Pit,” he said.
Sophomore Daniel Keller stopped to watch him and said he appreciated Birdsong’s return. “I just find him entertaining so, I wasn’t too upset when he was banned, but I think he is a pretty integral part of UNC’s campus, almost as memorable a part of UNC as hanging out in the Pit,” he said.