Gay-rights groups protest outside News Channel 8
Nearly 100 people picketed in front of WFLA News Channel 8 on Wednesday, opposing the station's decision to run a religious paid program they say contained hate speech against gays and lesbians. The one-hour program, "Speechless: Silencing Christians," aired on June 27, the same day as the St. Pete Pride parade. "It was a slap in the face of the gay pride movement," R. Zeke Fread, the director of Pride Tampa Bay, said at Wednesday's protest. "It was an hourlong attack on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people." Carrie West, president of the GaYBOR District Coalition, said to his knowledge, WFLA was the only station in the Tampa Bay area that ran the program."It was very disturbing to a lot of people," West said. John Schueler, the president of Media General's Florida Communications Group, defended WFLA's decision to air "Silencing Christians." "Our overriding mission is to provide platforms for the broadest points of view and be responsible to the community we serve," Schueler said in a written statement. "We understand that doing so can cause strong disagreement. We screened this program and ran a disclaimer before and after it ran noting that this does not reflect the views of WFLA." Media General owns WFLA, The Tampa Tribune and TBO.com. The protest began at 5 p.m. in front of the station's parking garage on Grand Central Avenue, with protesters then walking to the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Parker Street. Picketers wore red, which signified "the blood of furiousness" that people felt against WFLA, West said. "We wish it could stand for Valentine's love, but it doesn't," he said. The crowd held up signs, wore T-shirts and bellowed chants that lampooned the news station's well-known slogans and mottos. "News Channel Hate is not on your side!" a group of protesters - who wore shirts that said "News Channel H8" - yelled at passing cars. Fread said WFLA should donate the $35,000 she said the station was paid to run "Silencing Christians" to a gay and lesbian charity or run documentaries that counter the religious program's message. Protestors also wanted one more thing. "We didn't get an apology," West said. "An apology goes a long way." Luke Lirot, a First Amendment attorney who has no connection to this issue, said the station doesn't have to apologize. WFLA simply "adhered to their obligation to give people access to the airwaves," Lirot said. Once a group pays for airtime, "they can engage in any First Amendment-protected speech, no matter how heinous," he said. "You have to respect the First Amendment's neutrality." Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder stopped by the protest. He said he was disappointed WFLA ran the paid program. "I don't think this station would show a 30-minute infomercial in favor of racism or anti-Semitic behavior,'' Dingfelder said. "That sort of thing; that's not acceptable. Neither is a 30-minute infomercial about homophobia.'' According to the American Family Association's Web site, the nonprofit group that produced "Silencing Christians," the program is about how mainstream media censors Christians' messages. The thrust of the show, according to the Web site, is that Christians in America are losing freedoms at the hands of the "liberal minority" that is "undermining the morals and values of mainstream America." David Caton, the executive director of the Florida Family Association, said Wednesday's protest shows how gay activists "believe that their First Amendment rights are superior to those of people of faith." "They have all the right in the world to protest," Caton said. "I recognize and applaud their First Amendment right to do so." In June, WFLA had logged hundreds of telephone calls and more than 1,000 e-mails, almost all protesting the broadcast, before the program ended.
Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at (813) 259-7920.