City files gathering ordinance

Sweeping changes to the ordinance governing amusements and amusements were filed so the city’s attorney could consider a letter of objection from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Monday’s public hearing continued until May 16 after correspondence from the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU said the broad scope of the language would infringe on First Amendment rights.

The proposal, led by Police Chief Ed Mello, would expand the order from around 200 words to around 3,000 words.

“Our most fundamental concern is that, although the current order being repealed is clearly limited to covering certain commercial entertainment activities, the proposed updated order would impose licensing requirements on a wide range of activities. policies and other non-commercial activities that we believe cannot be subject to these requirements under the First Amendment,” wrote ACLU Chapter Executive Director Steven Brown. “This is the case whether the conduct is considered ‘indoor entertainment’, ‘outdoor entertainment’ or a ‘one-time special event.’ We hope the broad scope of the revised ordinance was not intentional and that the city council will support its modification to limit its scope.

Brown, for example, said an intimate gathering with a folksinger playing guitar in a park “would seem to require an outdoor entertainment license.”

“As a result, virtually any political or social event would require the issuance of a license and, if taking place on city property, proof of insurance,” he wrote. “As a general rule, however, individuals or groups do not need to obtain any kind of license (let alone insurance) from the city to engage in par excellence protected free speech activity. On the contrary, we believe that the First Amendment prohibits it.

Mello, however, said the ACLU is putting “the cart before the horse.”

“A political protest that wants to happen when 10 people are marching down the Narragansett Avenue sidewalk is not as concerning as if 1,000 people want to march down Narragansett Avenue,” he said. “There is no clearance process for either. It would be very difficult for us to plan and provide the support.

According to Mello, a permitting process allows the board to impose conditions on an event that “are reasonable without infringing an individual’s First Amendment rights.”

While Councilman Randy White agreed with Mello that the ACLU’s concern “was overblown,” he said they “couldn’t be ignored.”

“While I agree with you that we may never face a problem, I would feel more comfortable, frankly, if the city attorney could review the proposed ordinance in its entirety,” he said.

William Smith III, a Jamestown resident who co-organizes the annual August anti-nuclear weapons protest in East Ferry, echoed the ACLU’s position.

Although his group applied for a permit in 2020 and 21 after years of unauthorized gatherings, he said the group was only applying for permission to use public facilities at Veterans Memorial Square.

“We do not consider this commemoration to be fun or entertainment of any kind,” he said. “This is a simple First Amendment gathering. We come together to address our government on matters of national importance.

According to Smith, if his rally to remember the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima did not use public facilities, he said it should not be necessary to apply for a permit.

“I respectively urge the City Council to add a brief paragraph to the ordinance simply stating that it does not regulate or restrict First Amendment gatherings in any way,” he said.

John Andrews, president of the Jamestown Ukraine Relief Project, was also concerned about the order. His problem, however, was with bureaucracy. He said the order should “be a bit more refined in terms of distinguishing between high impact and low impact events”.

Andrews, for example, said a song recital in one of the churches should be able to be administratively approved instead of requiring a permit from the council.

“There might be an opportunity for the board to consider some kind of delegation of its authority for low impact events,” he said.

Sara H. Byrd