The City of Glens Falls has adopted a local law that requires large groups of protesters to seek a permit before demonstrating.
It’s been an increasingly common sight in Glens Falls to see groups of dueling protestors. The Warren County city is home to a district office for Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, whose doorstep has become an attraction for liberal protest groups and conservative counter-protesters. At times, things have gotten heated.
Fearing escalation, discussions in city government began last year on doing something to prevent violence between protest groups. Tuesday night, the common council adopted a local law establishing guidelines for demonstrations.
Mayor Dan Hall is a Democrat…
“We just want to make sure that people can use their First Amendment rights but we really want them to respect others. You know, in the First Amendment it says ‘peacefully demonstrate’ so that’s what we would like people to abide by,” said Hall.
The local law amends city code to require pre-planned gatherings of 25 or more people to seek a permit from the city, which has up to 14 days to approve. In addition to establishing that demonstrators shall not block traffic or the public right of way, as well as other safety provisions, demonstrators and counter-demonstrators must maintain an eight-foot buffer between groups.
“We’ve found that other municipalities have put in some kind of regulations for demonstrations and counter demonstrations, so we did our homework. We feel that we’ve got a pretty good law,” said Hall.
The New York Civil Liberties Union expressed concerns as the city considered its protest law.
NYCLU Capital Region Chapter Director Melanie Trimble says the city did not address its concerns adequately regarding the permitting process.
“So in effect, we’re concerned that if there are pop-up demonstrations that do not allow for the time involved in applying for a permit, that people may be prevented from demonstrating.”
Wade Beltramo, General Counsel at the New York Conference of Mayors, says even if smaller communities don’t have demonstrations on the scale of places like New York City or Washington, there are still logistical and safety reasons to justify a permitting requirement.
“Is traffic going to be impacted, so they can put in some other traffic control measures to deal with traffic and divert it? Are they going to have to call in other resources, other police agencies to help and assist? And that takes some time. And the courts have recognized that.”
Beltramo says more communities are seeking to adopt guidelines regarding demonstrations in the current political climate, as well as in a time defined by social media.
“In this day and age, people can get online – they can get on Facebook or Twitter or whatever social media platform they’re using – and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go down and protest, who’s going to be there? And it can go off on its own. It can catch like wildfire.”
But critics like Trimble say it shouldn’t be up to local governments to decide when demonstrations can occur.
“When a protest or when counter-protesters show up and there is an upset, it is really up to the police. It’s not up to the town to try and legislate free speech, it is simply to make sure that people remain safe and secure,” said Trimble.