Saturday, September 12, 2009

No First Amendment right in Smithfield?

From WTSB Radio's news page. Though I disagree with the proposed boycott, punishing business owners for the stupidity of a town, I do certainly agree that the right to peacefully assemble was abridged. Granted the right was squashed by a municipality, not Congress. The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Police Shut Down Patriots Day 9-11 Rally On Courthouse Steps
Event Organizers Plan Boycott Of Smithfield Businesses

Organizers of a peaceful 9-11 “Patriots Day Tea Party” were shut down by Smithfield Police Friday afternoon. About 45 minutes after the event began on the Johnston County Courthouse steps, two Smithfield Police Officers arrived and told spectators the event was being held without a town permit and could not continue.

Birma Stemler, who spearheaded the Smithfield Patriots Day gathering, said she had been planning the event for four months and had been told by Smithfield Planning Director Paul Embler she did not need a permit. Later, Stemler claims Embler changed his mind in late-August, and said she would need Smithfield Town Council approval because a public address (PA) system would be used, but would have to wait to appear before the board in October. Stemler said October was too late for a 9-11 rally. As a courtesy, Stemler said she told a police lieutenant weeks ago about the rally.

Stemler did appear before Johnston County Commissioners on August 3, and was given permission by County Commissioners to hold the 9-11 event. According to minutes of the meeting, County Manager Rick Hester told Stemler he had no issues with a PA system but he wanted to make sure it would not disturb the court system that may be in session. In response, Stemler moved the timing of the event until after 5pm.

About 140 adults in attendance were shocked when police told them the event was not authorized by the Town of Smithfield. To protest the forceful police action, the group said they would boycott Smithfield businesses in response to the town’s decision to prevent them from holding a peaceful assembly on public property. “I was told I could do this and there would be no problems,” Stemler told WTSB News. “The officer argued with me, but did say I would not be arrested.”

Officer D.A. Tyndall was asked by a WTSB reporter, who sent the officers to the 9-11 gathering. He replied, “The police department.” When asked again, who specifically at the police department sent him he again replied, “The police department.”

Town Councilman Andy Moore, who was not present at the event, said he did not want anyone boycotting Smithfield businesses based on the actions of police. “I will be talking with the city manager to see what went on and to see if we can work something out,” Moore told WTSB. “Obviously I would not want anybody boycotting Smithfield businesses, especially during the touch economic conditions that we have.”

Chris Johnson, Executive Director of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corporation, who has overseen the revitalization of the downtown business district, said the thoughts of a boycott makes him cringe, but said he hopes cooler heads will prevail. “Hopefully an amicable solution will be reached.” Johnson said the 9-11 event the group was trying to rally around would not occur for another year, and said he hoped it was a big misunderstanding. “We ask that any citizen, not just this group, that has any problem with an elected official or city government, they would not take it out on the small independent businesses that are struggling in this economy.” Reached Friday night, Stemler said plans for the boycott still stand. She hopes others will join in the efforts to let town officials know the groups rights to assemble peacefully - protected in the US Constitution - were denied. One citizen said a lawsuit might be considered. WTSB Photos