With an eye on safety, Maggie Valley passes protest ordinance
Some new rules will be in place for all future protest activity in Maggie Valley after the town’s board unanimously approved an ordinance meant to minimize what Mayor Mike Eveland called “chaotic and grossly confrontational encounters” that took place at a previous demonstration.
“The events of July 18 showed many of us that Maggie Valley is not isolated,” Eveland told a special called meeting of the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on July 30. “In fact, these events illustrated how connected the town is to an evolving landscape of ideas and ideals that are being debated throughout our country.”
On July 18, a small group of about 30 demonstrators associated with the Black Lives Matter movement began a march through Maggie Valley, along Soco Road. Twice, they were marched past a large group of counterdemonstrators waving signs and flags and shouting obscenities.
As the march concluded at Town Hall, another large group of counterdemonstrators were already there, waiting for the demonstrators to return. From there, an hours-long shouting match between the two groups ensued, with groups separated by more than a dozen law enforcement officers from three separate Haywood County agencies.
“The town needs to take a proactive role in ensuring that those wanting to picket have the opportunity to do so peacefully and safely, so they have the ability to convey that message — whatever that happens to be,” Eveland said. “I have heard from some that think the proposed ordinance goes too far in limiting free speech while others I have talked to believe the proposed ordinance does not go far enough in addressing safety concerns.”
For the 18 or so people who showed up to the special meeting — six of whom spoke — the concerns voiced were overwhelmingly slanted towards the latter.
One of them, a man who gave his name as Steven Rich, said his Facebook group came up with a list of enhancements to the proposed ordinance, all of which were unconstitutional and demonstrated a lack of understanding of what, exactly, the First Amendment is and what it does.
Rich said that there should be a limit on how many times the group should be allowed to demonstrate in the town, and that only residents should be allowed to organize a demonstration. He also called for onerous fees that would have a chilling effect on protected speech, according to attorney Brian Gulden.
Gulden, who said the ordinance was drafted in consultation with Town Attorney Craig Justus and the UNC School of Government, put on a clinic in constitutional law for Rich, as well as others who proposed other authoritarian measures like banning demonstrations on busy tourism weekends, forcing demonstrators to remain in one place, or implementing a blanket ban on demonstrations within the town.
“Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because that government does not like that idea,” Gulden said, shooting down the legality of each of the propositions.
Although the First Amendment has since 1791 guaranteed the constitutional right to free speech, no amendment is without limitation. Courts have consistently upheld the right of governments to limit speech based on the time, place and manner of that speech.
To survive legal challenges, those limits must be content-neutral (without reference to the content of the speech), they must serve a compelling governmental interest (like public safety, or traffic flow) and they must also examine whether other avenues to free speech are available.
Kitty Curran, a local business owner who took a prominent role in the July 18 BLM demonstration, spoke in support of the ordinance while lauding Maggie Valley Police for keeping what could have been a very violent situation in check.
“They need tools to keep the peace, and this is a tool to help them keep the peace,” Curran told aldermen.
Police were indeed given several more tools to ensure that demonstrations, like the one BLM has again scheduled for Maggie Valley on Aug. 1, remain peaceful for all involved.
From now on, persons wishing to demonstrate — the legal term is “picket” — must deliver a “notice of intent to picket” to the chief of police or his designee no later than 72 hours before the scheduled action.
That notice is to include the name of the organization or group sponsoring the picket, the name of the organizer, the date, time and location of the picket, the estimated number of picketers and whether persons under the age of 18 are expected to attend.
The ordinance also delineates where, exactly, picketing may be conducted, including “on public sidewalks, at Town Hall, Town Hall Park, Parham Park, Mary Rathbone Rich Park, McCracken Corner Park, or any other town-controlled park or other town-owned areas normally used or reserved for pedestrian movement …”
Further, the poles or staffs upon which are mounted signs, flags and banners must be made of “corrugated material, plastic or wood,” may not exceed 36 inches in length and must be blunted at each end. Poles or staffs made of metal or metal alloys are expressly prohibited, as are “dangerous weapons.”
If more than one group desires to picket at the same time, officers may assign each group a place to do so, separated by at least 25 feet.
Alderman Tammy Wight proposed expanding that distance to 25 yards, but aldermen declined the request, noting that it was within law enforcement discretion to enforce greater separation.
Other protections in the ordinance prohibit spectators from using “fighting words” or threats that might provoke a reasonable person to a breach of the peace, and that “profane, indecent abusive or threatening language” would likewise not be tolerated.
“This has been an incredibly challenging year,” Eveland said, pleading with demonstrators to consider the effect such disruptions have on Maggie Valley’s economy. “Protests of any kind have a chilling effect on tourist spending; in fact, many businesses lost so much business on July 18 that they will be fully closed on Aug. 1. Our point being is for those who choose to engage in picketing, regardless of content or message, remember the impact that your actions will have on a business community whose foundation is built on service and tourism.”