Council stands by requiring permit to picket Critics see possible free-speech breach CENTRAL -- Union Mills * Westminster * Sandymount * Finksburg

October 19, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

It may soon be all right to carry any foreign flag you please down Main Street in Westminster, but don't try to picket without a permit.

The City Council has no plans to change a section of its picketing, parades and demonstrations ordinance that requires permits, despite an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman's view that the way the law has been enforced may infringe on free speech.

The council is tentatively scheduled to vote at its Oct. 26 meeting on a recommendation to repeal two sections of the ordinance that may be unconstitutional: a ban on displaying the flag of any nation with which the United States is at war or does not have diplomatic relations; and a provision that the city government can opt to require parade sponsors to post a bond.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the ACLU of Maryland, said the permit requirement probably doesn't pose a constitutional issue, but the process may.

"If the restrictions make it unreasonable, they [city officials] may be blocking free speech," he said.

Members of local peace groups say they have had difficulties with the permit process.

"Whether we had trouble depends on your definition of trouble, but they [city officials] were so nice about it the people with me wouldn't let me raise a stink about it," said Erik Boring.

Mr. Boring sought a permit for a peace demonstration by the Whole Earth Society of Carroll Community College in November 1990. He said he was unfamiliar with Westminster and city officials refused his request for suggestions for a site.

Society members then asked to march in front of the Westminster branch library and were told they could not because it was county property. "We played this game for three or four days until I secured through one of my teachers that someone at the library called [City Hall] and said, 'It's all right,' " Mr. Boring recalled.

It took 1 1/2 weeks from the time the application was filed until the permit was issued, he said.

Society members had a candlelight vigil in January 1991 after the Persian Gulf War began, but didn't get a permit. "We just decided at 9 p.m. on Main Street, there isn't traffic on the sidewalk," Mr. Boring said.

David Braune of the Brethren Peace Fellowship said city officials have never hassled the group because of its views, but he, too, has problems with the turnaround time for issuing permits.

If he reads that U.S. Rep. Beverly B. Byron has voted in favor of MX missiles today, he wants to be picketing her Westminster office immediately, Mr. Braune said.

The only permit in city files issued that fast in the past two years is one sought by Mayor W. Benjamin Brown for a rally supporting U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf War. The application was filed Feb. 22, 1991, and approved in time for the next day's rally.

The average time from application to issuance of the permits in city files is two weeks.

Mr. Braune said the required mayor's signature is a problem. "If the timing is wrong and the mayor's not available, there doesn't seem to be anyone over there who will take the courage to give you the permit," he said.

Councilman Kenneth A. Yowan, who heads the committee that recommended the ordinance changes to comply with constitutional questions, said he believes the turnaround time can be addressed without eliminating the permit requirement.

City police need to know what parades or demonstrations are planned so police can be assigned to be sure demonstrators aren't blocking the sidewalk or interfering with pedestrians or street traffic, Chief Sam Leppo said.

"We like to have several weeks because of our work schedule," Chief Leppo said. "For the most part, these demonstrations and parades are not emergencies."

The State Highway Administration requires 30 days notice for parades, the police chief said. Westminster's Main Street is a state road.

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