Durham, North Carolina - Friday August 18, 2017 - People gathered in downtown Durham, NC to protest a proposed KKK Rally the afternoon of Friday August 18, 2017.
A proposal requiring advance notice for some protests on county grounds stalled Tuesday amid questions from county commissioners and concerns from the public.
Because the proposal comes as an update to the county's facility-use policy, which is approved by the county manager, amending it is considered an administrative decision that doesn't require approval from the Board of Commissioners. The board did ask staff members to revisit a provision requiring forty-eight business hours’ notice from groups of fifty or more people who plan to demonstrate on county grounds. On Tuesday afternoon, there was no timeline for when the proposal would come before the board again.
Under the proposal, organizers would have to fill out an online form giving the county notice of their plans to gather on county lawns, courtyards, plazas, and parking lots. If notice isn't given, participants could be found to be trespassing and removed from county property. The county would not review those notices for approval or disapproval, and there would be no fee for using county grounds.
"The notification process allows law enforcement, Emergency Management, and General Services to schedule the appropriate resources needed for groups of 50 or more individuals," the proposal says.
The discussion stems from an August letter by Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews
in response to an August 18 demonstration in which hundreds of people gathered downtown—including a few carrying weapons—in anticipation of a possible Ku Klux Klan appearance. In the letter, Andrews asked the county to revise its facility-use policy to address demonstrations on the grounds around county buildings.
The proposal was crafted by the Sheriff's Office, General Services, and Emergency Management. It swiftly drew criticism from Durhamites, including groups that regularly protest the Sheriff's Office and the county jail, as well as the state ACLU.
“Members of the public have a constitutional right to gather and protest in public spaces—including as a rapid response to a current event," said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina. "As we’ve seen in North Carolina and across the country, quickly organized demonstrations play a crucial role in our democracy. We encourage Durham County's commissioners to heed the concerns of residents and ensure that free expression rights are protected for all.”
Four people spoke against the policy during a public comment period.
"Why should we pay you taxes to shut us down?" asked Rafiq Zaidi, a member of Inside-Outside Alliance, which advocates on behalf of inmates in the Durham County Detention Center and frequently protests against the Sheriff's Office.
Although Inside-Outside Alliance does hold some regular protests, member Gregory Williams said the group would "absolutely not" notify the county about its events. The group also holds impromptu protests against policies, conditions, and deaths at the jail.
"The sheriff's department does not like getting publicly criticized, and they're intent on squashing that criticism," Williams said. "We’re going to do what we’ve always done, which is to take space and hold it and amplify the voices of people inside."
The fact that demonstrations could not be denied through the notification process doesn't give him comfort. He cited a March 13 meeting in which IOA members were arrested after disrupting the annual State of the County address and the arrests of demonstrators
present for the August 14 toppling of a Confederate monument downtown.
"It's just adding more rules to allow the manager to find explicit violations and promote conflict," he said. " ... This is a key tactic they use and this is clearly an effort to expand the area in which they can use that tactic."
The board's discussion centered on how to balance the right to free speech and peaceable assembly with the need to protect public safety. The commission’s primary concern was the window of advance notice outlined by the proposal.
"There are events that take place in our history that none of us have control over," said chairwoman Wendy Jacobs " ... Things happen, and it's natural for the community to come together to respond." She cited policies in other municipalities that ask for notice without stating a specific window of time.
Commissioner Heidi Carter questioned whether a revision was necessary and asked if it would stir up more discord than it would prevent. The county manager already has the authority to determine that a group on county property is trespassing and should, in turn, be dispersed by law enforcement. State law already criminalizes damaging public property. County staff and officials often learn about protests before they happen via social media and other sources, she noted.
"I worry that putting this policy in place would be a recipe for escalating dissension rather than de-escalating it," she said. Both Carter and Jacobs questioned why a policy affecting public expression on public property should be an administrative, rather than a board, decision.
County Attorney Lowell Siler does not think the revised policy would infringe upon First Amendment rights. Public safety and public expression can be safeguarded at the same time, he said.
"I don’t have any concerns about that," he told the INDY
. "Our main concern is keeping people safe, and that’s what this is all about. We want the protesters and demonstrators to be safe, and we want those engaging in county business to be safe. That’s the bottom line."