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City Council adopts ordinance to revise procedures for permitting of events, demonstrations

The ordinance includes a revised permitting process, regulations on the use of open flames at events

<p>Jeff Fogel, a local attorney and city resident, said the ordinance was a misguided reaction by the Council to the events of Aug. 12.&nbsp;</p>

Jeff Fogel, a local attorney and city resident, said the ordinance was a misguided reaction by the Council to the events of Aug. 12. 

The Charlottesville City Council adopted an amended ordinance Tuesday night to revise a number of the City’s standard operating procedures governing the permitting process for special events and demonstrations within the city. 

The revisions were administratively instituted by City Manager Maurice Jones in December after consultation from the K & L Gates law firm. At Tuesday’s meeting, the Council codified the changes into a city ordinance and also passed a series of amendments to the originally proposed ordinance. 

The revisions serve as a response to the white supremacist events in Charlottesville since this past May, including the deadly Unite the Right rally Aug. 12, in which organizer Jason Kessler was able to obtain a permit for the rally in Emancipation Park.

The city had attempted to move the ‘Unite the Right’ rally to McIntire Park due to safety concerns in the days before Aug. 12, but an injunction by a federal judge allowed the rally to continue as planned in Emancipation Park. 

The revisions added a list of “prohibited items” into the event permitting regulations, barring items such as open flames and other objects considered to be “implements of riot” and “any items capable of inflicting bodily harm when these items are held or used in an intimidating, threatening, dangerous or harmful manner.”

Under the revisions, the city manager would also exercise greater authority in the approval, denial or modification of the conditions of a potential permit if the applicant did not provide additional information concerning the intended purpose of the event if requested. 

The first amendment to the ordinance passed in a 4-1 vote — with Mayor Nikuyah Walker voting against the amendment. The amendment added language that would allow for the use of candles at demonstrations if they were not used in an “intimidating or threatening” manner by participants. Other forms of open flames would continue to be banned from all special events or demonstrations. 

Councilor Kathy Galvin said the amendment to the ordinance would prevent the use of open flames — such as the tiki torches used by white nationalist demonstrators in events held in Charlottesville since May 2017 and at the University Aug.11 — while allowing for the use of candles when community members want to hold a memorial service or vigil. 

The second amendment to the ordinance passed unanimously and increased the originally proposed number of 10 participants to 50 for events and demonstrations requiring a permit from the city. The is the same number of individuals currently stated in the City’s event permitting guidelines. 

Councilor Mike Signer said the original intent behind reducing the number of individuals from 50 to 10 was to allow the city to better deal with the potential instances of hate group rallies in the city moving forward. 

“This would give the city the ability to deal with events like that [white nationalist rallies] and to regulate them,” Signer said. “Free speech and permitting is a matter of balances … And it’s our job to set the rules with the balances we can strike that can be defended in court.” 

Walker opposed Signer’s view that the tight restrictions on the number of speakers allowed at unpermitted events would prevent local residents from expressing their own free speech rights. 

“I’m really concerned about us being more restrictive for the citizens who live here and how it will affect them every day versus people who will attempt to show up randomly throughout the year,” Walker said. 

Councilors Heather Hill, Wes Bellamy and Galvin agreed with Walker, each expressing concern that the strict regulation of the number of participants allowed at permitted events would harm the ability of local residents to hold events and demonstrations. 

“I think what I've heard is that in more cases, we will be alienating our public that we may want to encourage to get together,” Hill said. “I feel like it's really about enforcement, if we’re sticking with the 50-person limit.”

The third amendment also passed unanimously and reduced the originally proposed number of days required for groups applying for an event permit from 60 to 45 if the event will likely result in the closure of streets or other city spaces to be considered logistically safe. 

For events and demonstrations that would not result in road closures or other disturbances to traffic flow in the city, applicants would be required to submit an application for a permit 30 days prior to the event under the adopted ordinance. 

Councilors also expressed their concerns about a portion of the ordinance that would allow for “spontaneous demonstrations” in response to an event, announcement or another demonstration. The ordinance placed no restrictions on how many attendees there can be if the demonstration is carried out within 48 hours of the event, announcement or demonstration being responded to. 

City Attorney Lisa Robertson said there was some flexibility on granting permits for events and demonstrations outside of the stated time frames if the applicant could explicate how the event would not pose any major logistical challenges to the city. 

“If a certain number of people showed up spontaneously to protest against a particular demonstration, that would most likely fall under the category of a spontaneous demonstration,” Robertson said. “But if someone wanted to stage their own rally in a particular place and to have their own counter-event — that may require a permit if it’s planned in advance.”

Robertson added that the actions of counter protesters against white nationalist demonstrators during the Unite the Right rally Aug. 12 would likely be considered a spontaneous demonstration. 

Council took no action on the “spontaneous demonstrations” language Tuesday night.  

During a public hearing before the Council adopted the amended ordinance, speakers criticized provisions of the ordinance. Some community members expressed to the Council that the revisions to the City’s code may cause more harm to local community members rather than prevent hate groups from returning to the city. 

Jeff Fogel, a local attorney and city resident, said the ordinance was a misguided reaction by the Council to the events of Aug. 12. Fogel also called upon the Council to condemn the recently proposed policy changes presented by the University's Deans Working Group that would limit the ability of individuals unaffiliated with the University to gather on Grounds.

“Unaffiliated people at U.Va. will be limited in where you can engage in free speech on the campus,” Fogel said. “I'm hoping the city is going to join and challenge U.Va. for doing that and restricting the rights of our citizens in Charlottesville from being able to protest some of the activities, policies of the University of Virginia.”

City resident Bradford Slocum said the proposed event and permitting regulations were not sufficient in addressing the events of Aug. 12 and other recent white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville. 

“Amending just the permitting procedure is not enough,” Slocum said. “The people who live and act in our community and those that come in from outside to intentionally engender terror, cause violence under the guise of free speech have proven time and again they will come regardless of permit.” 

Walt Heinecke, a city resident and an associate professor in the Curry School, said the new regulations needed to pay more attention to the intent of individuals organizing demonstrations. 

“I think free speech is free speech, but when there’s an intent for mayhem and killing and destruction, that's a different thing,” Heinecke said. “I think the regulations have to be sensitive to the intent behind the applicant and what the intention is not just the content of the speech.”