Isle of Wight approves permit requirement for protests

Published 4:03 pm Saturday, May 26, 2018

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In response to the violence seen in Charlottesville last year during the “Unite the Right” rally, Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Thursday to enact an ordinance requiring permits for protests.

The ordinance is detailed under chapter 11.1 of the county code, titled “music or entertainment festivals; assemblies, demonstrations and parades.” The ordinance had been under consideration since mid-January when it was first proposed.

During the January work session at which the ordinance was first proposed, the supervisors said that its purpose would be to ensure that the county would know where and when a protest or other event was happening so that it could have appropriate levels of law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel standing by. Prior to the board’s adoption of the ordinance, the county had no permitting process in place for such events.

The new ordinance states that pursuant to Section 15.2-1200 of the Code of Virginia no person shall stage, promote or conduct any musical or entertainment festival in the unincorporated areas of the county without a permit. The same applies for any marathon or other physical endurance contest or exhibition, public assembly, demonstration or parade on public streets, sidewalks or other property open to the general public.

Permit applications are now required to be filed 60 days in advance of any musical event and 30 days in advance of any other event regulated by the ordinance. In addition to providing contact information and the specific dates, times and locations at which the event will take place, the applicant must also sign an acknowledgement of all prohibited items and pay an application fee.

The Board has not yet agreed upon a dollar amount for the permit application fee. However, when it does, this will be detailed in the county’s fee schedule for other permits, which can be found at:

County Attorney Mark Popovich clarified that courts have dictated that permit fees for protests may not be overburdensome to an individual, and as such, the fee will be minimal.

“If they don’t have a lot of money, you are effectively impeding their freedom of speech,” he said. “I look at a reasonable fee being simply [the cost of] the administrative process of reviewing the application and then issuing a permit.”

As for prohibited items at assemblies or festivals, these include:

  • all items prohibited by law from being held, carried, displayed, worn or otherwise used in public; items banned from public or park lands;
  • BB guns, pellet guns, air rifles or pistols, paintball guns, nun chucks, tasers, stun guns, heavy gauge metal chains, lengths of lumber or wood, poles, bricks, rocks, metal beverage or food cans or containers;
  • glass bottles, axes, axe handles, hatchets, ice picks, acidic or caustic materials, hazardous, flammable, or combustible liquids, dogs (except service dogs), skateboards, swords, knives, daggers, razor blades or other sharp items, metal pipes, pepper or bear spray, mace, aerosol sprays, catapults, wrist rockets, bats, sticks, clubs, drones, explosives, fireworks, open fire or open flames, or other items considered an “implement of riot;”
  • any items capable of inflicting bodily harm when these items are held or used in an intimidating, threatening, dangerous or harmful manner, and;
  • law enforcement or military-like uniforms or uniform-like clothing, badges, insignia, shields, hats, helmets, masks, equipment and other items that when held, carried, displayed or worn tend to suggest or imply that the wearer is a current member of law enforcement, the military, a private militia or other public safety organization, such as a fire department or emergency medical services agency.

Though numerous items that can be used as weapons are listed under the “prohibited items” section, firearms are not listed. Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson explained that this is because the county cannot prohibit firearms, as it would be a violation of the second amendment and Virginia’s state constitution.

The ordinance then states that any person who violates any provision of this ordinance shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be fined up to $300 or by confinement in jail not exceeding 30 days or both. The ordinance also grants the Board the authority to bring suit in circuit court to restrain, enjoin or otherwise prevent violation of the ordinance.

There are several exceptions to the ordinance. Spontaneous events, which are defined as unplanned or unannounced gatherings or parades not contemplated beforehand by any participant in response to unforeseen circumstances coming into public knowledge within 15 days of an event, are exempt, as are recreational activities such as jogging or walking, provided that they do not require the closing of public streets or interfere with the normal use of public property. Door-to-door advocacy or sales, including canvassing and distributing written materials, funeral processions and students going to and from classes or activities are also exempt, as are the activities of the Armed Forces or government agencies acting within the scope of their functions and any events at parks and recreation areas regulated by Isle of Wight County.

The ordinance also does not apply to events held within the incorporated borders of the county’s two towns.

The “Unite the Right” rally occurred on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, and was intended to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. According to The Washington Post, tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists, neo-Nazis and armed militia groups, many from out of state, clashed with counter-protestors. Several dozen people were injured and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a rally-goer plowed his car into the crowd of counter-protestors.