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Gaston County Will Require 24 Hours Notice Before Allowing Protests On County Property

Ann Doss Helms
A Confederate monument outside the Gaston County Courthouse drew regular protests in the summer of 2020, leading police to block it off with caution tape in August, 2020.

People who wish to hold a protest or other event on county property in Gaston County will now need permission ahead of time, according to a new ordinance approved Tuesday night by Gaston County commissioners.

The new rules require people to submit an application to the county at least 24 hours in advance of holding a protest with more than 25 people on county property. Festivals and other events on county property will require an application submitted at least two business days in advance.

It will be up to the sheriff and other county leaders to approve the applications. They're not supposed to deny any on social, political, or religious grounds.

Commissioners approved the new ordinance unanimously at their Tuesday night meeting, despite representatives from the ACLU and Duke University's First Amendment Clinic warning in a letter to commissioners that the rules are overly broad and may violate the First Amendment.

First Amendment Concerns

In the letter, the representatives argued that the notification requirement could stifle free speech, quoting a ruling in NAACP, Western Region v. City of Richmond that said, "The simple knowledge that one must inform the government of his desire to speak and must fill out appropriate forms and comply with applicable regulations discourages citizens from speaking freely."

The representatives also said the ordinance does not make room for spontaneous protests and gatherings that might occur in response to breaking news events.

They also criticized a provision in the ordinance that prohibits protests from occurring within 50 feet of a county building, calling it "overbroad and unconstitutional."

"The sidewalks and other open outdoor areas surrounding county buildings are almost always considered traditional public fora which must be open to the public for protest and assembly," the representatives wrote.

Speaking before Tuesday's vote, Gaston County Commissioner Ronnie Worley said it was not the commission's intention to limit free speech through the updated ordinance.

"Certainly this board's intention is not to inhibit or restrict First Amendment rights," he said. "It's about public safety. It's about the safety of our members of our law enforcement, especially."

He said the ordinance would give police time to prepare for protests and other mass gatherings. He also noted that the ordinance only applies to county property.

"Folks can still congregate and protest freely in other places any time, so it doesn't inhibit freedom or speech in any way," he said.

Past Ordinance Proposals

Tuesday's ordinance was a revision from an earlier, much more restrictive proposal. The earlier proposal would have required people to give 30 days notice and pay at least $250 to host a gathering of 25 people or more, or $750 for groups of 500 people or more on county property.

The proposal needed unanimous consent to pass, and failed after Commission Chairman Tom Keigher cast the lone "no" vote, raising questions about the proposal's constitutionality, The Gaston Gazette reported.

Commissioners have been considering updates to the county's mass gathering ordinance since protests began springing up in the summer of 2020 around a Confederate monument outside the Gaston County Courthouse.

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal