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County eyes new rules for Courthouse gatherings

Activists gather more and more often on the Historic Courthouse plaza, exercising their right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

There are a lot of grievances these days, from gun control to gun rights to the environment to immigration. Problem is, the work of government goes on in the walls of the 1905 Courthouse and those administrators find it hard to conduct business with a racket outside.
“What we’ve had is a demand for a place people can come and express their First Amendment rights,” County Manager Steve Wyatt said in an interview Tuesday morning. “It appears that the location of choice in this community is right outside my window here. That’s cool, that’s great, that’s the way it should be. But the reason for a policy is to maintain some kind of order and to be legal.”
Commissioner Grady Hawkins also raised concerns about the growing frequency and sometimes rowdiness of demonstrations on the courthouse property, which at various times is called the plaza, square, yard or grassy area.
“Russ’s job is to make sure it’s legal,” Wyatt said of County Attorney Russ Burrell. “Ours is to make sure it’s practical.”
Besides trying to quiet the crowd, at least during working hours, the county also wanted to prevent groups with conflicting points of view — gun rights and gun control groups, for instance — claiming the space at the same time. Another aim is to preserve access to the courthouse. The new rules also require people to apply for a permit to use the Courthouse plaza at least three days before their event and accept liability for any damage that occurs, accident claims and cleanup costs. Permits would be granted on a first come, first serve basis.
After county administrators and County Attorney Russ Burrell rewrote the policy, the new rules had their first public rollout on Monday night. Critics panned the proposal. Several people appeared before the Board of Commissioners on Monday night to oppose the rules, saying they would suppress free speech rights.
“Limiting use of sound amplification is understandable but a total prohibition is unnecessary and may interfere with freedom of speech,” said Robert Miles, a co-leader of the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, which holds vigils to support gun control. “The application could ask whether a sound system will be used and, if so, ask for a brief description.”
Given the opposition and their own questions about the policy rewrite, commissioners opted to delay consideration of the rules.
“It would seem to me it would be a benefit if we got this out in the public arena and let the public have a few weeks to review it, as we need to review it as well,” Commissioner Bill Lapsley said.
Hawkins described the rewrite as “a good start” that could be tweaked.
“In this day and age you can get loudspeakers you can hear all the way to Saluda and we certainly don’t need that,” he said.

Several changes seem startling at first glance, like one that strikes tobacco and “illegal drugs or contraband” as items that are prohibited.
“Tobacco’s a legal product,” Wyatt said. “I don’t think you can” prohibit it. Drugs are already against the law so the reference was deleted as unnecessary, Wyatt and Burrell said.
Several changes relax the rules.
Gone was the requirement that applicants be from Henderson County. Wyatt said that was unenforceable. So was a rule, he said, that barred “partisan political groups.”
“Why should you prohibit that?” he said. “Any time you get two people together there’s politics involved. Who’s going to decide? And frankly there should be a public place where you can have a political demonstration as long as it’s done with respect to others’ ability to move about. Don’t block the street, you’ve got a fire code here. Don’t block the entrance or exit.”
Miles, the gun control activist, urged commissioners to keep the plaza as open as possible for the exercise of First Amendment rights.
“The space in front of the Historic Courthouse has become our ‘town green,’ similar to the common space in many New England towns and Pack Square Park in Asheville,” he said. “This growing county can expect, and could welcome, an increasingly diverse range of opinions. I urge county officials to develop policies that enable as many groups as possible to express their views in this space while ensuring that events do not interfere with visitors to the courthouse and nearby businesses.”

SHIRTTAIL
To read the proposed rules visit hendersoncountync.gov and click on “Draft Facility Use Policy.”

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