When we last looked in on Ocala, Florida on March 2, the City Council had declined to take any action on the claim by local businessman Brad Dinkins that upcoming performances in city owned sites violated the terms of the venues’ leases. That came after an hour of presentations at a City Council meeting at which the majority of the speakers defended the bookings in question, while only a few voices were raised against them. As a result, a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues and a burlesque show went on as planned.
Following the meeting, the Ocala Star-Banner quoted Council Chairman Jim Hilty as saying, “We don’t feel (we want) to ban this. We’re definitely not looking to ban anyone’s free speech. I believe at this point we have to allow the shows to go on.” The paper further noted, “In cases where performances were grossly obscene, Gilligan said the city would likely invoke the part of the contract that limits performances.”
A separate editorial in the Star-Banner, titled “A Lesson in Public Discourse,” praised the previous day’s debate. It began, “It was a good day at Tuesday’s Ocala City Council meeting. Not only was a fundamental American principle discussed and debated passionately for more than an hour and left untrampled, but it was done so in a civil manner that our presidential candidates would do well to emulate.”
So while it is not entirely surprising that Brad Dinkins remains unsatisfied by the City Council’s action, or rather lack thereof, since none was deemed necessary, it is surprising to find Dinkins garnering headlines on the same subject yet again. He’s now convinced that by standing for the constitutional rights of individuals using city owned property, things are only going to get more “adult” in Ocala.
Dinkins’ prediction: People inclined to produce adult-oriented theater or films are likely to do it again, given the council’s unwillingness to stop last month’s performances of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Reilly Arts Center and a retro burlesque rendition in the Marion Theater. “The way the trend it going it’s very likely (there will be more adult-oriented performances).” (Star-Banner, April 9)
What is remarkable about the extensive new article is that the first 13 paragraphs concern Dinkins’ position exclusively. While many voices are heard from thereafter, explaining why the City Council’s decision was appropriate and legal, the paper has allowed one single person to set the tone for a review of an issue settled a month earlier, at a point when there isn’t even a particular performance or production to debate.
Mr. Dinkins has every right to express his opinion. But why exactly does the Ocala Star-Banner have to give him a platform every time he complains about his worries and fears regarding live performance? Is Dinkins’ Ocala’s own Donald Trump, whose every utterance is worthy of attention, no matter how ill-considered?
If one reads the entire article, “Brad Dinkins still wants City Council to stand against adult shows,” it’s clear that the City Council’s actions in March were made according to local and Constitutional law. Yet now city officials are starting to parrot some of Dinkins’ concerns, and speak of looking for oversight they previously said they didn’t need.
Hilty said it’s possible future performances of adult-oriented films and plays held on publicly owned property could be coming.
“I think it can happen. They could be a little bit more emboldened now,” Hilty told a Star-Banner reporter a few weeks after the March council meeting. “But I would hope they wouldn’t go to that extreme to push the envelope.”
For now, City Attorney Pat Gilligan is reviewing the leases if they should be changed to give the council a stronger hand.
Gilligan said he wants to “give the City Council as much legal flexibility” as possible if it is to grapple over a performance it thinks isn’t compatible with the community’s values. He said the current lease gives the elected officials plenty of authority over what’s performed on city property.
This new hedging towards worry and control is contrary to the message that came out of the City Council meeting. It suggests that Ocala might be looking for legal grounds to censor creative work on city property in violation of the First Amendment. It sends a not-so-tacit message to the operators of the venues in question that they should be careful about what they present, lest they cross a line that they haven’t even come close to.
Could Brad Dinkins be laying the groundwork for a political campaign based upon his highly subjective stance on public decency? If so, it seems that city officials and the media in Ocala are only too willing to give him a hand in building his base. Admittedly, there can be value in a single voice fighting against a status quo, even when the majority think otherwise. But when that solo voice is given a disproportionate platform in order to try and subvert the Constitutionally-rooted principle of free speech, maybe it’s time for everyone to get a grip and remember: nothing illegal or even subversive has taken place in Ocala, and there’s nothing on the horizon either.
If Mr. Dinkins wants to press his cause, let him do so on a blog, or social media, or by buying ad time or space. Let him call in to talk radio if he wishes and flog his censorious efforts endlessly there. After all, in the words of the Star-Banner editorial:
In the end, the City Council appropriately took no action. And while we are pleased to see another unnecessary civic kerfuffle come to its proper end, we cannot help but be proud of how the community handled this issue — or non-issue, as it turned out.
Recapping: this “unnecessary civic kerfuffle” has come to its “proper end.” It’s a “non-issue.” No censorship. Performances in city venues continue. Move on. No matter what Brad Dinkins thinks.