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Gaston County District Attorney Says New Protest Ordinance Will Be 'Very Difficult' To Enforce

Protesters gathered both in favor and in opposition to a Confederate monument outside the Gaston County Courthouse in July 2020.
Ann Doss Helms
Protesters gathered both in favor and in opposition to a Confederate monument outside the Gaston County Courthouse in July 2020.

Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell says he has significant concerns about the county's newly approved mass gathering ordinance that creates new rules for people who want to protest on county property, and he says parts of it will be "very, very difficult, if not impossible, to enforce."

He made the comments in an interview with WFAE on Thursday afternoon, two days after the ordinance was unanimously approved by the Gaston County Board of Commissioners at their regular meeting.

Under the new ordinance, groups of 25 or more people who wish to protest on county property must submit an application to the county at least 24 hours in advance.

The applications would be reviewed by the county sheriff and sheriff's deputies, who would have the power to approve or deny them, and could revoke a protest permit "at any time."

The new rules also ban any gathering from taking place within 50 feet of a county building, and direct protests and other gatherings to take place only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

The district attorney said he was primarily concerned about the 25-person threshold, wondering what would happen if 24 people gathered for a protest, and one other person spontaneously joined them — making the protest illegal.

"Are you asking law enforcement to arrest the first 24 people who were not breaking the law until somebody joined them?" he said. "You can't enforce that."

He also said he was concerned that the sheriff and sheriff's deputies have the power to approve or deny applications.

Under the ordinance, the sheriff and the sheriff's deputies aren't supposed to base their decisions on political, social, or religious grounds, or on the "content of the views expressed," but Bell said that still presents First Amendment concerns and "runs the risk of the government overstepping First Amendment rights to free speech."

He also said he disagreed with the ordinance on a personal level.

"My personal belief — and I am a First Amendment Libertarian — is that if someone wants to picket me, they should not have to get a permit to do it," he said.

Bell said he raised concerns about the ordinance with at least two county commissioners prior to Tuesday's vote, and has not had contact with any of the commissioners since. He says he does not oppose the ordinance in its entirety, but believes parts of it are unworkable for his office.

"I'm not saying throw the whole thing out, but as it is written, it's going to be very, very difficult, if not impossible to enforce parts of it," he said.

Representatives with the ACLU and the Duke University Law School also raised First Amendment concernsin a letter sent to commissioners on Feb. 22.

On Thursday, a representative with the ACLU of North Carolina said the organization had not ruled out the possibility of pursuing legal action against the ordinance.

The Gaston County Commission's chairman, Tom Keigher, declined a request for an interview Thursday. The Gaston County attorney, Jonathan Sink, did not return requests for comment.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal