Motivated by the deadly clashes in Charlottesville this summer, the town attorney has proposed amendments to the existing Blacksburg town code regarding picketing and public assembly.
At the Blacksburg Town Council working session last week, Town Attorney Larry Spencer presented ‘Ordinance Amending Town Code Sections 15-101, 15.5-102, 15-201, 15-202 And 15-203 regarding Picketing To Clarify Process And Add Safety.’
In a frank address, Spencer described a collection of amendments crafted with multiple stakeholders to help people safely assemble.
“Everything we’re talking about, imagine Charlottesville right behind me, because that’s what made us think about this,” Spencer said.
To address issues surrounding contemporary public assembly, the proposed amendments clarify existing processes and rules, allow for quick assembly with short notice, prohibit some types of weapons, but not others and provide greater information to the police to help them prepare for large events.
Other municipalities within the region including Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, Tidewater and Washington, DC have reexamined or changed their picketing ordinances following events in Charlottesville.
Blacksburg has worked closely with the Blacksburg Police Department to include public safety language and points to craft the proposed amendments and a public hearing will be held on Dec. 12.
The amended ordinance is currently accessible on the town’s website here: www.blacksburg.gov/town-council/meetings/public-hearings.
Currently, existing rules on picketing on sidewalks do not require a notice to the town. The new ordinance would not require a notice if the group is fewer than 10, but for 10 or more people, the group has to provide a notice.
“It’s not a permit, it’s a notice,” Spencer said. “Sidewalks are considered one of the cornerstones of public expression.”
The option to apply for a notice of intent to picket anonymously would be removed.
“If you’re going to protest in a park or close a street or you’re on other town property, you need to get a permit because parks and streets are not ordinarily used for protests, but for cars and pedestrians,” Spencer said.
The function of the notice is to provide a contact should the police department need to talk to someone associated with a group.
“If it’s going to be a lot of people, they can have an officer there and know about it,” he said.
At the meeting, Spencer pointed out that, at one time, an application required the approval of the Town Council, placing the council in an awkward position when a controversial or unpopular group seeks permission to gather. Now, applications are evaluated by Blacksburg Police Captain Nathan O’Dell.
According to Spencer, the role of the proposed amendments is to understand the nature of the assembled group, then prepare for and accommodate it within the town’s standards of conduct.
“It gives the police and the manager’s office the ability — not to stifle demonstration — but to make sure you can manage demonstration. To make sure the protest or the demonstration goes off, and to make sure you’re able to contemplate things like accommodating groups that don’t like each other,” he said.
Theoretically, under some conditions, applicants may need to have insurance.
Submitted by email, the current application for Picketing and Demonstration Registration describes acceptable conduct during a demonstration by the Section 15-202. The Standards of Conduct statement is attached to the online form.
It is proposed that the Standards of Conduct statement would be amended too to describe objects people cannot carry including sticks, rods, and clubs. Candles are allowed, but not torches.
“I tried to come up with a definition for the word ‘torch’ without using the word ‘Tiki’,” Spencer said.
The contact person who fills out the form is expected to let the group know not to bring signs on sticks. The council agreed generally that is it widely known that sticks cannot be brought to public assemblies.
“Most people are used to not having signs on sticks and they’re stapled on and they can take them off,” said councilperson Susan Anderson.
“It’ll be a two-way street, and we know it will be a learning curve,” O’Dell said.
The Standard of Conduct currently expresses general guidelines that no person picketing can obstruct the sidewalk or streets, although Section (e) prohibits the presence of “any vicious animal,” also added to the Standard of Conduct.
“You don’t have to smile. You don’t have to be nice, but some of the things you’re not going to be able to do. You can’t come in there all garbed for a fight. It’s not consistent with a friendly or healthy First Amendment right exercise,” Spencer said.
Virginia is an open-carry state meaning that people can come to a public assembly carrying guns. A firearm may be carried without a permit openly in Virginia by people over 18 except where prohibited by statute according to the Virginia State Police website.
“The police will make sure existing firearms rules are enforced. So if you’re going to go around with guns, you have to have them holstered and not held in a manner that is threatening to people,” Spencer said.
For more information about the public hearing and to read the ordinance itself, go to the Town of Blacksburg’s website: www.blacksburg.gov/town-council/meetings/public-hearings, or contact Town Attorney Larry Spencer email@example.com.