Westminster council considers exemption for protest permits

Change would affect 25 or fewer people

April 21, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Prompted by a Girl Scout's desire to join a peaceful protest with the Westminster chapter of Women in Black, the city's Common Council is reconsidering a section in the municipal code that requires permits for groups of fewer than 25 demonstrators.

"We want to get an ordinance on the books that will allow for the exercise of First Amendment rights without the fear of violating laws," said Ava E. Lias-Booker, a Baltimore attorney representing three Westminster residents who believe their right to protest is inhibited by the city code.

Before a budget work session tonight, the council will consider revising Chapter 109 of the code. If enacted, the ordinance would allow groups of 25 or fewer people to protest on city property without a permit. Groups with more than that number would still need a permit, but would receive it in two days as opposed to the current 10-day deadline.

"The ordinance is old and First Amendment law has developed over the last three years," said council President Damian L. Halstad, an attorney who specializes in business and civil litigation. "It would be prudent for us to review it and make sure it's up to date."

Lias-Booker and the American Civil Liberties Union contacted the city last week to question possible violations of the First Amendment because of its permit policy. A letter asked the city to revisit the code and make changes within 45 days.

The push to change the ordinance originated with Women in Black protesters who stood silently in front of the public library on Main Street in February. A Westminster police officer told them to put down their signs because they were violating a city ordinance.

Westminster residents Richard Serrao, Sylvia Tejeda and Barbara Passmore contacted the ACLU for help so they wouldn't run into the same problem at future demonstrations.

Passmore's daughter Melanie, a 16-year-old junior at North Carroll High School and longtime Girl Scout, wants to hold a peaceful protest on Main Street sidewalks as part of a project that will earn her the Gold Award, Scouting's highest honor for girls.

Melanie's Girl Scout project focuses on the history of the U.S. flag. Her adviser on the project is Betsy Cunningham, the leader of Women in Black in Baltimore, a group of international activists who conduct silent vigils to protest war and violence.

The ACLU sees Westminster's policy as a threat to free speech.

"The government is making dramatic moves. ... People want to take to the streets, and when that happens time is of the essence," said Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. "People who want to respond to those policies need to move quickly as well."

She said the Supreme Court has determined that in matters of free speech, time is precious.

"Free speech is a fragile right and if it's denied even one day, the Supreme Court says, it causes irreparable harm to the would-be speakers and this is taken as a very serious matter," Goering said.

In recent weeks, the ACLU has fought and won a permit dispute with Baltimore, where a protest this month by eight Women in Black was questioned under a park regulation.

The group hopes the Westminster dispute results in a similar success.

"We decided to hold off for the moment and see how things go," Lias-Booker said. "It appears to us that the Common Council is very interested in trying to work with us to develop an ordinance that is constitutionally sound so that a lawsuit would not be necessary."

City officials said they are willing to meet the public's needs.

"People who oppose the war with Iraq have the right to protest and have been given permits to do so," Halstad said. "The issue is balancing First Amendment rights with the city's desire to make sure no one gets hits by a car, and that the sidewalks stay passable and that demonstrators are not harassed."

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