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Activists lament the new First Amendment Demonstrations ordinance

Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 8:14 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 30, 2021 at 8:38 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A new ordinance restricting how, when and where groups of more than 25 people can gather is now on the books. Charleston police say the new rules are a response to an increase of First Amendment-related permit applications they have received over the last year and a half.

The ordinance codifies many of the rules that were already in practice for groups looking to host a protest. The rules include applying for a permit for groups of more than 25, limiting those demonstrations from being within 15 feet of a historical marker, monument, statue, or other public points of interest like fountains, and restricting permits to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Read the full ordinance here.

Organizers of recent protests say the regulations go too far in restricting their rights to demonstrate.

“I hope that there will be a legal challenge,” said Pastor Thomas Dixon. “Somebody needs to be held accountable and they realize what they are doing is illegal.”

However, constitutional law professor Stewart Harris says these kinds of restrictions are common for cities and well within the legal standard.

“As long as they are content neutral that is they apply equally to everyone and they are not targeting a specific group they will likely be upheld,” Harris said. “The court will look very closely at them because unfortunately in the country we have a long history in the country of people putting out what look like very content neutral, generally applicable regulations when they are in fact targeting a specific group or political opinion.”

Harris says the city could run into trouble with rules that bar demonstrations within 15 feet of historical markers and statues.

According to the Preservation Society of Charleston there are more than 100 historic markers in Charleston’s Old and Historic District alone. That doesn’t count fountains, gazebos or “objects and other architectural elements or structures with commemorative, historical, symbolic, aesthetic, or artistic significance”.

“The City of Charleston is historic,” says protest organizer and community activist Sharea Washington. “There is not one street, one building, one landmark, one library, one anything in all of Charleston that is not a historical marker. So basically, what they are saying is get off the peninsula.”

No permits will be granted for demonstrations before 8 a.m. or after 8 p.m. Harris says regulating the First Amendment is extremely complex and situational.

“If I’m a labor group and I want to picket outside a plant and I want to catch the morning shift as they’re going in, they’re probably already at work at 8 so I want to be out there at 7,” Harris said. “So, I think maybe these time restrictions could get the city into a little bit of hot water.”

The ordinance is not inflexible. While organizers are expected to submit their permit request days in advance, it does make exceptions for spontaneous demonstrations that occur within 48 hours of breaking news. The ordinance also gives a lot of discretion to the Charleston Police Department to work with groups to find alternatives to proposals that might get rejected.

Justin Hunt is an organizer for Stand As One, which has hosted a number of demonstrations in reaction to the death of Jamal Sutherland in recent months. At one of those demonstrations he was arrested.

“If you remember, when I got arrested it was because I wasn’t following procedures,” Hunt said. “After that I followed the procedures by the book, and they kept trying to restrict me with revisions that were not constitutional. It couldn’t be at this time or in this area. I think they are afraid to take real accountability for why we are protesting.”

Hunt says getting a permit has been needlessly difficult.

“We are not out to damage anything or harm anyone’s business,” Hunt said. “We are out to protest because there are certain things, we believe in.”

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