Caddo Parish to Vote on Protest and Vigil Restrictions on Courthouse Grounds

Candlelight vigil at the Caddo Parish Courthouse following the Pulse nightclub shooting. Photo by Erin Buchanan.

Without being too dramatic, a refresher on the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Today, the Caddo Commission will be voting on Ordinance No. 5627, which will require ANYONE who wishes to organize a peaceful gathering on courthouse grounds to obtain a permit fourteen days in advance as well as to purchase event insurance. According to Deborah Allen, local civil rights activist, this would apply to “anyone who wants to have a vigil, peaceful protest, or prayer rally.”

She continues, “As anyone who has purchased event insurance knows, the insurance costs hundreds of dollars. And a permit that requires a 14 day wait will limit anyone who is rallying, protesting, or praying for political and social events, unrelated to the court, that can’t be anticipated in advance, such as a tragedy.”

Moreover, and possibly the most alarming, is that requiring citizens to spend hundreds of dollars of their own money “disenfranchises lower income community members from exercising their constitutional rights to peaceful assembly.”

According to an article published by KTBS, the ordinance was birthed out of concern from Sheriff Prator regarding the vandalism and safety of courthouse grounds. Prator cited a recent Saturday morning in which several thousand dollars of overtime had to be spent because of a planned demonstration with a group who wanted to walk around with confederate flags and open carry guns. The department had to prepare for a possible thousand armed demonstrators.

That particular event fizzled, but the concern remains.

The confederate open-carry march on Caddo Parish Courthouse grounds which took place May 30, 2015.
The confederate open-carry march on Caddo Parish Courthouse grounds which took place May 30, 2015.

 

Unfortunately, requiring a permit 14 days in advance as well as costly event insurance wouldn’t mitigate these circumstances. In addition, it does nothing to address the vandalism, which – according to the article – the sheriff believes was committed by the indigenous and homeless downtown population.

Caddo Parish resident Debbie Lynn Hollis writes, “The act of charging a permit fee or imposing other prohibitive measures, including but not limited to waiting periods or insurance requirements, upon Caddo Parish citizens’ right to free speech and peaceful assembly is a direct violation of our fundamental rights as American citizens.

I have attended numerous protests, demonstrations and marches at the Caddo Parish Courthouse and throughout Shreveport. Never once have I witnessed violence – either from demonstrators or law enforcement… [and] as a side note, I have continually served the homeless population in downtown Shreveport since 2005. I have never once witnessed a homeless person ‘urinating and defecating in the bushes’ at the courthouse. If there were a problem with our downtown area being unsanitary due to our outside neighbors, perhaps the Commission, DDA, the HOPE Coalition, the Sheriff, and other homeless service providers like The HUB could work together to open more shelters, and create housing and job opportunities for people who are homeless.”

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A series of candles placed on Caddo Parish Courthouse grounds to honor Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five officers who fell in Dallas.

This ordinance also does not allow for exceptions to the rule. The wonderful candlelight vigil on the courthouse steps which several in the community attended for the victims of Orlando would have been disallowed – either because of the 2 week waiting period or because organizers couldn’t afford it.

While there appear to be real concerns with regard to demonstration and safety, and one can appreciate local government attempting to avoid situations which lead to violence, this ordinance falls short and seems to be a direct violation of the right to peacefully assemble.

Questions that need to be asked at the hearing are:

  • Does this ordinance actually further public safety?
  • Should a person or commission have the power to veto a public gathering?
  • Does this ordinance violate our first amendment rights?
  • Does this ordinance reflect the values of a growing and diverse community which, under the law, has the right to hold peaceful protests and vigils?
  • Will this cause otherwise law-abiding citizens to be criminalized?
  • How will the commission make sure each and every citizen is aware of this new ordinance?

When local college student Megan Walsh heard of the ordinance, her immediate response was, “What about vigils, like for the Orlando victims? Do they have to pay insurance? Do we just have to know about tragedies 14 days in advance….?”

Excellent questions, Megan.

Make your voice heard. Attend the Caddo Commission meeting today, Thursday, November 3rd, at 3pm, Government Plaza.

If you cannot make the meeting, you CAN write or e-mail your commissioner. Info provided below.

Facebook event with more info:
https://www.facebook.com/events/1833390423562724

Full ordinance text: https://www.caddo.org/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/4312?fileID=3935

*****Heliopolis welcomes the opposing viewpoint from Sheriff Prator or any of the Caddo Commissioners as to why this ordinance might be a good idea. We have reached out to the Caddo Commission and are awaiting a response. This article was written to foster discussion and awareness, not to cement it.

Caddo Commissioner e-mails:

District 1 – Douglas Dominick
ddominick@caddo.org 

District 2 – Lyndon B. Johnson
ljohnson@caddo.org

District 3 – Steven Jackson
sjackson@caddo.org

District 4 – Matthew Linn, President
mlinn@caddo.org

District 5 – Jerald Bowman
jbowman@caddo.org

District 6 – Lynn Cawthorne
lcawthorne@caddo.org

District 7 Stormy Gage-Watts
sgagewatts@caddo.org

District 8 Mike Middleton
mike.middleton@caddo.org

District 9 John Atkins
john.atkins@caddo.org

District 10 Mario Chavez
mario.chavez@caddo.org

District 11 Jim Smith
jsmith@caddo.org

District 12 Kenneth Epperson
kepperson@caddo.org

Update: Heliopolis spoke with Matthew Linn, President of the Caddo Commission, who by the way was available to his constituency at 10pm on a Wednesday night (credit where credit is due). Per our particular concerns:

1. Regarding the insurance requirement, Linn plans to submit an amendment to the ordinance which will eliminate this completely. He agrees that the requirement “makes freedom of speech unattainable to those who already don’t have a voice.” The commission will still have to vote on whether to accept this change.

2. Regarding the 14-day wait period, he states this can be circumvented by approval from the Parish Administrator or the commission itself because of the following clause: “The Parish Administrator or his designee may waive any requirement of this Section in exigent circumstances.”

3. When asked about the reason for the ordinance’s introduction, Linn stated that this came from a concern regarding the possibility of opposing factions occupying the same space. He made reference to the open-carry group of confederate flag-hoisters which caused concern within the Sheriff’s office. The event initially expected nearly 2,000 people, but wound up being less than 100. It is not known how much advance notice the Sheriff’s office was given about this demonstration, nor whether this ordinance would have changed anything.

He also notes that this ordinance is a far cry from what was initially suggested by the sheriff’s office and others involved. They wanted much tighter restrictions and changes made to the courthouse grounds, such as installing a wrought-iron fence around it. In fact, the administration actually put this fence in the budget as a line item.

“To me,” states Linn, “that sends the message of justice for some and not all. Ken Epperson and I led the charge to remove that fence from the budget.”

The ordinance as is still has not changed, and the final vote is today. Heliopolis would like to thank Matthew Linn for responding so quickly. We urge you still to write or call your commissioner and/or attend the meeting today.