Winston-Salem to study meetings law before making changes

by Keith Barber

At the outset of Monday’s meeting of the PublicSafety Committee, Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burkeannounced to the audience — and specificallyto the members of Occupy Winston-Salem inattendance —that the issue of potential changes to the city’sopen-air meetings ordinance would not be resolved that night.

Burke’s prediction proved accurate as the committee agreedto City Manager Lee Garrity’s recommendation to take noaction on a proposal put forth by Councilman Dan Besse lastmonth that would restrict open-air public meetings on City Hallgrounds and send the issue back to city staff for further study.

Garrity recommended the committee ask city staff to look atall ordinances regarding public assembly, exhibition permits andparade permit ordinances “not for the purpose of restricting freespeech in any way, but for the purpose of trying to make surethey’re clear and consistent,” he said.

“There’s some confusion about what an open-air public meetingis,” Garrity added.

Garrity said city staff would solicit input from all citizens,not just members of Occupy Winston-Salem, in developing itsrecommendations over the next three months.

Besse attended Monday’s meeting and defended his “keep offthe grass” proposal that would have allowed demonstrators togather only on the paved steps, walkways and sidewalks of CityHall and would have limited the hours of any open-air meetingsat City Hall from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Winston-Salem city ordinancerequires individuals or groups wishing to hold open-airpublic meetings to obtain a permit from the city, except when themeeting is held on city property. Besse’s proposal would haveexempted City Hall from being considered public property.

Besse said he crafted his proposed changes to city ordinanceregarding open-air public meetings “on the fly” and in consultationwith City Attorney Angela Carmon in response to “protest activities”going on at City Hall last month. Besse said he had hoped hisproposed amendments to cityordinance would serve to clarifythe rules regarding public assemblywithout infringing uponthe First Amendment rights ofcitizens while the city deliberatedon long-term alternatives.Besse said he included a sunsetdate of March 27 because hisrecommendations were onlytemporary.

Besse said the “keep off thegrass” provision in his amendmentwas to protect citizensafety. Garrity addressedsafety concerns regarding creating a barrier to protect demonstratorsfrom falling off a rock wall that encircles the front lawn.He said City Hall is an historic landmark and his staff is workingwith the Historic Resources Commission to find a chain thatwould be appropriate for appearance’s sake and serve as a barrierto keep people from getting too close to the rock wall.

Garrity emphasized the current ordinance states that an open-airmeeting can be held on any public property, saying that OccupyWinston-Salem can have pickets of less than 25 people without notifyingthe city. If the number is greater than 25 people, they need tonotify the city but do not require a permit. Occupy Winston-Salemcan have open-air public meetings on public property that’s notalready restricted like a city park, he said.

“What they can’t do is sleep or camp,” he said.

A number of Occupy Winston-Salem members spoke duringMonday’s meeting.

Jon Epstein, a sociologist atSalem College, told committeemembers that he has frequentlyconsulted with police departmentsabout freedom-ofspeechissues, and he found itironic that it was so difficult forthe community to find a placeto speak politically.

“It’s the city’s responsibilityas the guardians of thiscommunity to let these peoplespeak,” Epstein said. “We’reasking for the people to beheard. Your responsibility is to find the place for that to happenand protect them.”

Tony Ndege, a member of Occupy Winston-Salem, said thegroup has been very respectful of the city. Ndege asked theWinston-Salem Police Department to give Occupy Winston-Salemthe benefit of the doubt with regard to enforcing the open-airmeetings ordinance in the future.

“Unfortunately we were shut down about six times in twomeetings and there was some sort of rule that was brought up —the 10-minute break from being involved in open-air assembly,”Ndege said.

Garrity said the city would continue to enforce the rules in theopen-air meeting ordinance but would give Occupy Winston-Salem the benefit of the doubt.

Councilman Derwin Montgomery touched on the WSPD’sactions in shutting down the Occupy Winston-Salem meeting onDec. 20 that resulted in the arrest of one of the demonstrators.

“I don’t like that,” Montgomery said. “If we’re going to enforcethat, we need to enforce across the board with everythingwe do, and not selectively look at certain things.”Kim Porter, a member of Occupy Winston-Salem, said thegroup has never been confused about the city’s open-air meetingsordinance.

“We did some research before we took the legal action ofconducting the open-air meeting on the City Hall lawn,” Portersaid. “We followed the rules, we followed the laws and I think,quite frankly, that Besse’s opinion that there’s some gray area,that the definition needs to be well-defined — that doesn’t makesense to me.”

Porter said she believes the city should simply leave theordinance alone.

“It appears to me that if the ordinance is changed, that to meis in direct response to us exercising our right to free speech,”Porter said. “We already have an ordinance on the books. It islegal what we’re doing. I’d like to mention we’re protected bythe Constitution. They’re making a big issue out of one thatshouldn’t be made. We are following the law.”

‘It appears to me that if the ordinance is changed, that to me is in direct response to us exercising our right to free speech.We already have an ordinance on the books. It is legal what we’re doing. I’d like to mention we’re protected by the Constitution. They’re making a big issue out of one that shouldn’t be made. We are following the law.’

— Kim Porter, Occupy Winston-Salem