A noticeable aspect of the violent weekend demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., was the armament people brought with them.
Some demonstrators came armed with batons. And they weren’t activists who just showed up: They had a permit.
Here in Columbus, the city outlaws even having signs on sticks at demonstrations.
And it has, in the past, been picky about that. Back in 1989 when the Springer Opera House first started hiring professional actors, the amateurs who’d volunteered in productions protested, picketing on the sidewalk outside the theater.
The police strictly enforced every provision of the city’s picketing ordinance.
First of all: No sticks. The protesters had signs on sticks.
“Pickets or demonstrators shall carry only cardboard or paper placards or signs,” says the city picketing law.
Also the picketers were making noise: “All assemblies and picketing shall be peaceful and unattended by excessive noise and boisterousness,” the city law says.
Soon the amateur thespian demonstration was reduced to quiet people marching back and forth with cardboard signs, as if they only were acting like they were protesting.
The city ordinance on picketing differs from the one governing parades and festivals.
The picketing law
Here are elements of the picketing law:
Marches of 15 people or fewer require giving the police chief five hours’ notice, and they can march only in single file.
Marches of more than 15 require 10 days’ notice and applying to the police chief for a permit. The police department has to respond within five days, and the chief may approve the application if he finds that: The demonstration will not substantially interrupt other traffic; a prior application for a permit for the same time and place has not been made, or if made, would not cause a safety issue; and the picketing will not present “a clear and present danger” to the public.
Those denied a permit may appeal to Columbus Council.
A separate section of the city code prohibits disrupting a funeral. That’s the result of the Westboro Baptist Church’s notorious demonstrations outside the funerals of fallen soldiers.
Also treated separately are parades. Nothing in the parade ordinance specifically prohibits batons or other common elements of marching bands.
The parade law
So, what constitutes a “parade”?
“ ‘Parade’ is any parade, march, ceremony, show, exhibition, pageant, or procession of any kind, or any similar display, in or upon any street, sidewalk, park or other public place in the city,” the ordinance says.
The law requires essentially the same permitting process as for picketing. Among the differences in a picket and a parade is that motor vehicles and animals are not allowed in picket lines, only people, and pickets can’t block streets. They have to stay on the sidewalk.
Also the parade ordinance has a free speech clause:
“No consideration may be given to the message of the event, nor to the content of speech, nor to the identity or associational relationships of the applicant, nor to any assumptions or predictions as to the amount of hostility which may be aroused in the public by the content of speech or message conveyed by the proposed event.”
That’s a 2003 amendment likely tied to the “School of the Americas Watch” protest outside Fort Benning. It challenged the city’s protest restrictions.
SOA Watch at its peak drew thousands, and provoked a counter-protest. The dual demonstrations drew on public safety resources, and prompted fears of mass casualties after 9/11.
Gatherings that large are addressed separately in the city code under the title “Parade, festival and demonstration permits.” It says the police chief may cite these reasons for denying a permit:
- The event will divert so many police officers to monitor the demonstration that it interferes with “normal police protection of the city.”
- The congestion will impede public safety services to nearby areas.
- The activities planned would present “an unreasonable danger to the health or safety” of participants, police or the general public.
- The applicant hasn’t complied with city regulations regarding the sale of goods or services.
- The activities planned are illegal.
- The applicant didn’t pay costs for a previous event or failed to complete a cleanup plan afterward.
- The applicant plans to erect a structure on public property without the city manager’s approval.
- The applicant plans an event adjacent to residential neighborhoods between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., so it’s likely to disrupt “the tranquil enjoyment of the home.”
What would the city do?
So, were Columbus to attract a large procession from a group known to carry batons, could it restrict that applicant to cardboard signs, under current law?
City Attorney Clifton Fay noted the law on wooden implements has a sound basis: Let angry demonstrators have sticks, and they’ll likely start hitting each other with them.
So, were they to apply for a permit under the picketing law, such gear would be prohibited.
But what about parades? Parade units carry a lot of things that could be weapons. Can the parade applicant be as restricted as the picketer?
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, whose position includes public safety director, said yes, a clear threat to public safety could justify such conditions:
“We would most probably prohibit poles, torches, civilian riot gear, and other such items that we could articulate pose a safety threat to participants and law enforcement in any issued permit,” the mayor wrote in an email, after she conferred with the police chief and the city attorney. “Unless ordered differently by a court, we would proceed in that fashion.”
Police Chief Ricky Boren said officers would handle a large demonstration just like they did during the SOA Watch protests: They would set up a perimeter with a designated entrance and monitor those coming and going, looking for weapons. Law enforcement would run any such plan past attorneys for the city, he said.
SOA Watch had lines of officers at its designated entrance and a long notice listing all the items that were banned in the protest zone, much of which was fenced in.
State laws still outweigh city ordinances, and both state and city laws are subject to constitutional challenges, particularly those based on First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to petition the government for grievances.
One state law that could pose a problem now is the one allowing residents licensed to carry firearms to have guns at public gatherings. The city could argue allowing firearms at a controversial event presents a “clear and present danger” to the public, but that likely would be challenged.