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Franklin’s contested public expression ordinance passes by slim margin

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Protest June 4, 2020

Scenes from the White Silence protest in downtown Franklin in June.

A newly passed ordinance will require groups of 20 or more seeking to organize public expression events to first receive a permit from the city of Franklin.

At Tuesday’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, Franklin leaders voted 4-4 on the ordinance, which has been a point of contention since its original introduction in 2019. Mayor Ken Moore broke the tie. 

“I never like to get in a situation where the board isn’t fully supporting something, and it’s rare that I ever have to vote,” he said. “We're not trying to stop the topic of the speech. We’re trying to create a safe environment for not only people that want to express their opinion, but I also want to make sure we're protecting the public and the physical structure of our city."

Aldermen Pearl Bransford, Brandy Blanton, Bev Burger and Dana McLendon voted against the measure, while Aldermen Clyde Barnhill, Margaret Martin, Ann Petersen and Scott Speedy voted in favor.

City leaders pointed out that most protestors and event organizers already communicate with the city prior to holding events.

City Administrator Eric Stuckey has long said the ordinance is to promote the safety of citizens, and the measure dates back to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended in tragedy.

“What we are really doing is memorializing what we have done for years and years in working with groups,” Stuckey said. 

He insisted the ordinance will not police the message of public gatherings.

“It makes it open and transparent for everybody about how we plan and protect everybody involved and how we work with folks,” Stuckey said.

Protest ordinance details

In addition to gatherings larger than 20 people, a free permit would be required if a street closure is necessary. Permits must be requested at least 48 hours before an event and will be approved or denied within 24 hours of receipt. 

According to language in the ordinance, “Denials can only occur if another event is permitted on the same grounds at the same time and day or if the police and fire employees are needed at another permitted event.”

If denied, city staff will work with the applicant to find a new day and/or place for the event. 

Counter protestors will not be allowed in the same area as protestors and will instead have their own designated area.

“It does also give us a little better ability to work with the counter protestor dynamic,” Stuckey said. “We are essentially granting the use of that public space to that group that is expressing themselves. They get to control it for that amount of time they express themselves, and we work with counter protestors in a different, adjacent area or nearby area.”

Aldermen react

Bransford, an at-large alderman, said she had been torn on the issue. She believed the city’s intentions were good, but after listening to constituent’s concerns, she said her stance had shifted to one of opposition.

She referred to Dr. Kevin Riggs’ editorial published last week in the Herald, in which the Franklin Community Church pastor argued the ordinance was a dangerous step against free speech.

Burger, Ward 1 alderman, said she understood the merits of the ordinance but had several questions for City Attorney Shauna Billingsley about the specifics.

“How do we require, when we really can’t require and put a limit on free speech?” Burger asked about the permitting process.

Billingsley said if those who showed up to protest were causing traffic issues, for example, the city could ask them to return with a permit. 

“Would we do that every time? Maybe not. I think it just depends on what’s happening in that moment,” Billingsley said. “If it were a protest that was based on events that just recently happened, we wouldn’t do anything.”

“I was going to support this all along, because I think it really helps accommodate people, I think it gives safety to people,” Burger said. However, the idea that a small group peacefully gathering may be asked to leave led her to vote against the ordinance.

Martin, Ward 4 alderman, said she would vote for the ordinance as a measure of support for the local police and safety in the community.

“The friends that I have that have contacted me about this that are opposed to it, I cannot imagine that they would object to doing what we asked them to do if it was for their safety and their betterment, for their safety and welfare and health,” she said. “When I look at some of the things that happen on television, when they say they’re peaceful demonstrations, you and I both know they’re not. We didn’t cause this, but I think we need to react to it, and we need to prevent anything from happening for the safety of people that are out there on the square.”

“This ordinance, in my view, will probably do more harm than good,” said McClendon, Ward 2 alderman and a practicing attorney. “I think we’re going to find ourselves in a regulatory morass, and even if that weren’t true, I’m not going to support an ordinance that requires people to tell us when and where they’re going to protest.

“Democracy is not always tidy. And the things that need to be protested don’t lend themselves to convenient schedules.”

Read the Herald’s previous coverage of the ordinance here:

Franklin could require permits for public expression events

As protests become commonplace, Franklin seeks to regulate public gatherings

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