Birmingham Weekly Fights Church-led Boycott

Inks Distribution Deal After Merchants Remove Newsracks.

First-year association member Birmingham Weekly is doing its AAN brethren proud.

The young 20,000-circulation Alabama alternative has been blackballed for much of this year in Gardendale, a suburb northeast of Birmingham.

The paper was booted from the conservative, middle class bedroom community when local merchants caved in to demands from a small band of activists. The group — which included Gardendale Mayor Kenneth Clemons, the Church at Peachtree’s Greg Davis and Pastor Steve Gaines of the 5,000-member First Baptist Church of Gardendale — was so offended by the Weekly’s content that they threatened to boycott local businesses that distribute the paper.

By mid-summer, the half-dozen or so Birmingham Weekly boxes that had flecked the suburb of 15,000 people had vanished.

But Publisher Tina Savas and her one-year-old newsweekly didn’t quietly slink away. Late last month, the Weekly made a defiant return to Gardendale — in a big way. Savas landed a contract with National Media Systems to distribute her paper at the local Wal-Mart and Food World. The Weekly also made the personal pissing match its Oct. 22 cover story.

“We felt we needed to make a strong statement,” explains Staff Writer Tom Spencer, who wrote the story. “Tina’s a fighter and this whole thing got her blood up. She didn’t want us to be pushed around.”

Adds Savas: “The goal here is to have to paper available in Gardendale. That’s why we chose to do what we did. We needed to continue to fight for the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech.”

The first signs that trouble was brewing in Gardendale came late last spring. The paper started receiving phone from Gardendale businesses that hosted Weekly newsracks — Wall St. Deli, a grocery store, a pawn shop and a hot dog stand. They wanted the boxes removed.

“At first, we just considered the whole thing annoying since [the Weekly] was growing so much elsewhere,” says Editor Tara Hulen. “No one [from the churches] complained to us directly, but all our distributors in Gardendale were saying the same thing: Some ministers in town were telling the businesses with our boxes that the Weekly was a danger to their children and the community, and if they didn’t get rid of them their businesses would be boycotted.”

Gardendale businesses were also pressured by public officials. Police Chief Wallace Campbell told Spencer that the mayor had instructed him to call a local business owner: “I contacted the owner of [a shopping center where there was a Weekly newsrack] and told him that the mayor’s office had a complaint about the free publication being available to minor children.”

Savas and Spencer both say the Weekly was targeted primarily because the church leaders and city officials were offended by the paper’s gay personals and ads for 900-number sex lines.

“In my interview with Steve Gaines, he told me that… they do oppose the same sex advertising,” says Spencer. “When I talked to [Greg] Davis, he claimed that the child of one of parishioners — a 10-year-old boy — had picked up the Weekly and was influenced to [seek out] pornography after reading it and had called the sex line.”

Spencer says the activists were also offended by the “anti-Christian” slant of some of the paper’s stories: “Davis said he disapproved of the same sex ads and also pointed to one of our stories where we examined churches’ roles as big business and how people were injecting Christianity into their commerce. He called it ‘blasphemy.'”

Calls to Greg Davis, Steve Gaines, Mayor Kenneth Clemons and Police Chief Wallace Campbell were not returned.

A few months after the Weekly was banished from Gardendale, Savas asked her former distribution partners to bring the boxes back, but they all declined.

“The people out there live in fear of the church,” she says. “I can understand [the businesses] wanting to stop [having our newsracks] because if they didn’t, the church would have 100 people boycotting them tomorrow.”

According to Savas, the Weekly has received calls and letters from Gardendale residents who support the paper. It was because of those people that she brought the paper back to the suburb.

“I believe in reader-friendly distribution — and that means making the Weekly easily accessible…. We have readers in Gardendale and I don’t want them to have to drive 10 miles to get a Weekly,” she says.

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