Local News

Durham leaders worry policy requiring advanced notice of protests could stifle free speech

Posted January 2, 2018 5:17 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 9:56 a.m. EDT

— County leaders in Durham discussed possible changes Tuesday to the rules for demonstrations held on county property.

The sheriff requested the changes after hundreds of people spontaneously filled downtown Durham last August to protest a rumored KKK rally that never materialized.

The key change could make it so that groups of 50 or more planning to demonstrate on county property have to give officials at least 48 hours’ notice, but the proposal did not go over well with many commissioners.

In the meeting, county leaders said they worry the change could stifle free speech.

“I really am concerned that it’s going to put a gag on legitimate protests,” said County Commissioner Heidi Carter.

County Attorney Lowell Siler said he and his staff worked for months to amend the “County Facility Use Policy” at the suggestion of Durham Sheriff Mike Andrews, who wrote to city and county leaders in August.

Andrews believes the spontaneous rally that formed on Aug. 18 in response to rumors of the KKK coming to Durham exposed shortcomings in the current policy. He suggested that demonstrators be required to give advance notice to the county so law enforcement would be better able to protect all involved.

“There are times when events happen and the community responds. We don’t’ want to do anything that impedes that ability to express free speech,” said Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs.

After many commissioners reacted negatively to the change, Siler said he will make further revisions.

“If we can have a situation where people can still exercise their first amendment right and everyone goes home safely at the end of the day, that’s a good deed and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

“We want people to be able to express themselves and express their first amendment rights. Also, we want to make sure everyone else, the demonstrators and everyone else, is safe at the same time.”

Activists who attended Tuesday’s meeting believe the policy would prevent them from protesting in a timely manner.

“We’ve been out here protesting and have never had to disclose to anyone, much less the county commissioners, about what we’re doing and why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said activist Cynthia Fox.

An official change to the policy would not require a vote from commissioners, only approval from the county manager, who also voiced disapproval of the proposal Tuesday.

The policy will return to the drafting phase and will be discussed again at a future meeting.