Parade-permit Debate Unearths 'Ludicrous' Provisions

Lone Picketers Needn't Apply

Leave The Hostile Flags Home

November 20, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — If you want to march through the center of town carrying a Cuban flag, don't come here.

And if a spontaneous, one-person demonstrationon a city sidewalk is your thing, better go someplace else.

While they're seldom enforced, two provisions in a city ordinanceguiding the issuance of permits for parades and demonstrations make it illegal to fly flags of nations at odds with the United States andto picket without a permit.

"That's just absurd," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland in Baltimore. "This foreign flag thing is particularly ridiculous. It has got to be unconstitutional."

Comstock-Gay isn't the onlyone who finds it ridiculous.

"I have to confess to you, I wasn't aware that was in the ordinance," said Mayor W. Benjamin Brown yesterday. "It's absolutely ludicrous."

Debate over the way the city issues parade and demonstration permits arose last week when the City Council overwhelmingly killed a revision to the 40-year-old ordinance.

The revision -- called for by Council President William F. Haifleyand members of the council before this spring's city elections -- would have kept the foreign flag and single-picket provisions intact.

Haifley and others wanted to change the ordinance so the city wouldhave more control over the types of activities that can take place in parades and demonstrations.

At last week's council meeting, Haifley brought up the tossing of candy from trucks in the annual Halloween parade.

Using the proposed ordinance to control that kind of activity prompted City Councilman Kenneth Yowan to say it was "like killing a fly with a nuclear bomb."

The mayor and others didn't realize the picket and flag provisions were part of the current city ordinance, which was adopted about 40 years ago.

"Some of the things I know they added," the mayor said. "But I wasn't aware the flag issue was carried over. We've got to get rid of that."

Police Chief Sam R. Leppo said that in the 18 years he's been here, no one has been turned down for a permit.

"I don't care to regulate what they're saying or doing, as long as it's legal," he said. "My only concern with a parade or demonstration is having enough protection on hand."

Westminster has the stronger of the only two official parade and demonstration ordinances in the county.

Hampstead's ordinance also regulates lone picketers, but, said Town Manager John A. Riley, it's pretty much overlooked.

"How can Westminster do that?" he asked. "People should be allowed to do their thing as long as they aren't violating any other laws or bothering people."

Taneytown used to have a parade and demonstration ordinance on the books. Taneytown's, like Westminster's, also regulated labor demonstrations, but the city's attorney said it was unenforceable.

"If the Klan is marching in town, I might be tempted to shoot them myself, but the city has to allow themto march," said City

Manager Neal W. Powell. "You're asking for trouble if you begin to regulate what people can say."

City Attorney John B. Walsh Jr. did not return phone calls seeking his opinion onthe enforceability of the city's ordinance.

New Windsor, Union Bridge and Mount Airy have not had parade or demonstration ordinances in their codes.

Neither has Sykesville.

"People have a right to peaceably assemble," said Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. "If you want to demonstrate on Main Street, I'd be the first person there to defend your right to do so."

Under the current ordinance, anyone doing just about anything but driving their car on the street or walking along the sidewalk must obtain a permit.

Under the proposed ordinance killed by the council last week, obtaining a permit would havebeen much more difficult and costly.

For a parade, the killed ordinance would have required a $100 application fee and 60 days' notice. For a picket or demonstration, the fee would have been $25, 10 daysin advance.

Any violation of the ordinance -- such as the displayof the flag of a foreign nation without diplomatic ties to the U.S. or picketing without a permit -- would carry fines of up to $400.

The current ordinance carries fines of up to $50.

"One of the things we wanted to do with a revised ordinance was make the process easier," Leppo said. "We never wanted to object to what you wanted to do.We just wanted to know how many people would be involved and how much police protection we would have to provide."

Mayor Brown said that he expects to begin talking with members of the City Council abouteliminating portions of the ordinance.

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