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Sit-in at sheriff’s office prompts Jackson to consider protest policy

If you want to protest, you have to protest by the rules — that’s the message the Jackson County commissioners are poised to send to unruly social dissidents.

For the first time in Jackson County, the commissioners may pass an ordinance limiting the scope of how groups may protest on county property. County officials are using an ordinance from Catawba County for the basis of drafting their own.

The sudden need for an ordinance reining in protestors follows a peaceful sit-in by illegal immigrants in the lobby of the Jackson County Sherriff’s Office earlier this month. The group dubbed “No Papers, No Fear” made a swing through Jackson County on a national protest circuit. Jackson County landed on the protesters’ itinerary due to allegations that Sheriff Jimmy Ashe engaged in racial profiling and targeted the Hispanic population with strategically placed traffic checkpoints.

County Manager Chuck Wooten felt that the protestors had too much free rein to obstruct entrances to county facilities and occupy rooms, while the authorities stood by without an ordinance in place to control the protestors. The group members also used drums.

“What they did last week was perfectly fine because there is no policy keeping them from doing it,” Wooten said. “That’s why we need a policy because we didn’t have grounds to ask them to stop.”

It was the first such protest in a county building that either Wooten or commissioners could recall.

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“How many times have we had something like this?” County Chairman Jack Debnam posed during a discussion of the possible ordinance at a county meeting this week.

Under Catawba County’s ordinance, the protestors would have had to check in with the county manager and receive permission for the assembly, Wooten said. He would have granted them permission to assemble but not in front of the entranceway, rather on a grassy spot across the parking lot, Wooten said.

“You have to make sure it’s a visible site so that the people they’re trying to convey their message to will see the message,” Wooten said, “But not that they obstruct the sidewalk or entranceway.”

Catawba County’s ordinance says any demonstration of more than 25 people must receive government permission to assemble on county property.

The definition of an assembly in the ordinance includes, for example, people passing out leaflets or trying to influence other people with speech. Also, in the Catawba County ordinance, the protestors are limited to signs no bigger than 36 inches and are prohibited from speaking “fighting words or threats that would tend to provoke a reasonable person to a breach of the peace.”

The ordinance also prohibits people linking together to block sidewalks or roads, or attaching themselves to buildings. It prohibits guns — unless held by National Guardsmen or police — fires, vicious animals, throwing objects, use of noxious substances, camping — the staple of many recent Occupy movement protests — among other activities.

At the recent county meeting where the model ordinance was discussed, the idea got the nod from several commissioners. When Debnam questioned how often an assembly ordinance would actually be utilized in Jackson County, Wooten replied that in the future, if the commissioners ever had to tackle a controversial issue spawning public outcry, it may come in handy.

“We’d already have the bridle and part of the harness on the horse,” agreed Commissioner Doug Cody.

County Attorney Jay Coward suggested several changes to Catawba’s ordinance, including lowering the 25-person threshold for requiring a permit and making it a misdemeanor for anyone violating the ordinance.

At least one local activist has taken issue with the idea of a local assembly ordinance — and with the idea of relegating a demonstration to a specific area or zone.

“Protests are something that are part of the American tradition and any attempt to curtail protesting is unconstitutional, unless a safety issue or something is involved,” said Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, an organization which advocates for clean air. “I thought from the Atlantic to the Pacific was a free speech zone.”

Friedman has been involved in numerous protests in support of clean air around the state and country and has been even been arrested for civil disobedience as part of large protests against corporate energy giants.

He said if it were a large protest requiring the closure of a road or the need for police protection, an application and permit were understandable, but he said 25 people may be too low of a number to necessitate government permission.

Friedman also expressed concern about the clause of Catawba’s ordinance that forces someone to put down his or her contact information when applying for the permit — especially when coming from a group that may be sensitive to divulging their personal information, such as an illegal immigrant.

Although the draft for the potential ordinance seems innocuous, sometimes complications arise when different officials take office and interpret the rules differently, said Friedman, who is also affiliated with the local Occupy movement.

“At first glance, I don’t see anything too extraordinary about this ordinance,” Friedman wrote in a statement. “But, just as a matter of principle, I’m wary of any law that attempts to restrict protest and impinge on First Amendment rights.”

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