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Special-events panel regroups to refine policy

SALISBURY — Near the beginning of a meeting of a newly reconvened committee to review the city’s special-events ordinance, City Councilman David Post recalled the October City Council meeting at which a previous effort was voted down.

“The seven people that objected to it all had objections relating to the First Amendment issue,” Post said Tuesday. “Nobody really raised any issues relevant to the parades and the special-events piece.”

“Council never told us to look at free speech. It was never part of the mission. Now it is,” said the committee co-chairman, Councilman Brian Miller.

With that in mind, Post and Miller decided Tuesday night — with the input of the about 20 people at the meeting — to separate the free-speech parts of the ordinance from the special-events parts.

The ordinance, which has been in effect for more than 30 years, addresses the two types of events as one.

“We’re going to separate what is a special event and what is a protest,” Miller said. “Because those are two different things. If I’m going to hold a Halloween costume party, that’s an event. If I’m going to protest something, then that’s a First Amendment, free-speech rights event.”

Miller said that in both cases, he wants public safety to be ensured.

“But you don’t have to ask for permission to exercise your free right,” Miller said.

Most of the nearly hourlong meeting was spent trying to finish discussions that started last year of the special events portion of the ordinance.

That committee, which Miller and Post also headed, met seven times over 10 months in 2017 in an effort to update the parts of the ordinance governing events such as festivals and parades.

The City Council voted 3-2 to reject the update at its Oct. 3 meeting because the free-speech portions had not been updated.

Some items that residents said infringe on free-speech rights at the Oct. 3 meeting included requiring that protesters be no closer than 15 feet to each other when marching and that protesters ask for the city manager’s permission after 24 hours of spontaneous protest.

About halfway through the committee meeting Tuesday, after hearing a number of concerns from residents, Post asked if it would be OK to strike out the portions of the ordinance that say “demonstration” in order to make the document just about special events.

“Every single paragraph, every single … section says ‘organized activity or demonstration.’ Every single one has that,” Post said. “So let’s just go through the paper real quick.”

Miller said what residents had in front of them Tuesday — the draft of the ordinance that was presented to the City Council Oct. 3 — is not what would be proposed to the council again.

“What we have here today is a starting point to try and get to a better, more clearly understood ordinance,” Miller said. “Anything that is not in the right place will be taken and put in the right place.”

The next committee meeting, which is supposed to be in the next month or so, will likely involve more discussion of people’s specific concerns about the free-speech portion of the ordinance.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Miller took a poll of what the “big” items are that residents want to discuss at the next meeting.

Some of the topics mentioned included sign regulations, where protesters are allowed to stand and rules about spontaneous demonstrations.

Miller said he also hoped to finish deliberations about the special-events part of the ordinance at the next meeting and perhaps present that to the City Council for approval while discussions about the free-speech portions continue.

Contact reporter Jessica Coates at 704-797-4222.

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