The city of Franklin is considering an ordinance which would require protestors to acquire a permit before holding a rally, march or demonstration.
At Tuesday’s Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen work session, City Administrator Eric Stuckey said the ordinance would provide regulatory framework for public expression events.
“We don’t regulate the content of public speech,” Stuckey said, “but we do regulate how it happens and where it happens.”
City Attorney Shauna Billingsley said city staff had discussed with leaders from Murfreesboro and Shelbyville how they handled “challenging” public expression events.
Those events — white supremacist and nationalist rallies planned to be held in 2017 — garnered national media attention but were both canceled due to lack of support.
Billingsley said a large part of the need for such a regulation is due to public safety.
"This is not to stifle public speech and public input and public gathering,” Billingsley said. “It's really meant to help them, anybody that wants to come out and protest, keep them safe from anybody that might counter protest, and to keep the counter protestors safe but also to keep our public spaces moving and free of people just standing on sidewalks."
What is a public expression event?
According to the language of the ordinance, a public expression event is defined as a noncommercial public assembly with the primary purpose of exercising First Amendment rights. The ordinance pertains to gatherings of 25 or more people on public property, like a city sidewalk or street, for more than 30 minutes.
Currently, Billingsley said, the city asks those who plan to hold such an event to notify the Franklin chief of police, and most people comply.
Requests must be submitted at least five days prior to the event; any denial of a permit could be appealed to the board.
Grounds for denial include an incomplete application, the existence of a previous event in the planned space, the potential disruption of traffic or if the information in the application is found to be “materially false and misleading.”
The penalty for violating the regulation by not receiving a permit would be up to a $50 fine, not a misdemeanor offense.
At-large Alderman Brandy Blanton questioned the boundaries of such an ordinance in certain spaces.
She pointed to a local children’s clogging group led by WAKM co-owner Tommy Jackson, which meets in front of the old courthouse on town square each Sunday.
"I would hate to see something that's become part of our Americana regulated,” she said.
She also questioned the cost to the police department.
Ward 1 Alderman Bev Burger asked city staff if they could find a way to prevent nuisance protest permits being granted.
“I want to make sure we have something in here that will give us a way to regulate someone, to prevent someone from getting a permit every single day, multiple days, multiple weeks, multiple months,” she said.
Staff will take the board’s recommendations under consideration, and an updated ordinance will go before the BOMA at a future date.