Orange County community members voiced their concerns over an ordinance that would prohibit picketing on or near school property and public playgrounds while children are present at the Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday.
The ordinance, which underwent its second reading during the meeting, was drafted as a response to repeated protests from the Proud Boys, a far-right group, at school events. According to an Orange County School Board resolution from October, the men displayed intimidating behavior, including racist and homophobic language, at these events.
Commissioner chairperson Renée Price said the resolution was brought to the board by members of the public who were concerned about the safety of their children while attending school.
"We are responding to a request made by parents and students and school board members," she said.
According to County Attorney John Roberts, no physical altercations took place and no arrests were made during the protests.
Before the commissioners opened public comment on the issue, Roberts recommended that the commissioners consider decreasing the 1,000 foot buffer requested by the school board.
"When I was looking at other types of buffers that the county has established through ordinance, such as land use buffers and one hunting buffer, the thousand feet that was requested by the school board does seem extremely lengthy," he said.
He added that while he did not have a recommendation for another length, the next longest buffer zone area by ordinance restricts hunting within 450 feet of government buildings, including public schools.
The commissioners also agreed to make changes to the definition of picketing. Roberts recommended that the words "vigil," "observation" and "other action" be removed.
"They don't really fit both the legal definition and the dictionary definition of the word," he said.
The definition now reads as "the activity or circumstance whereby one or more persons gather for a common purpose for protest or demonstration which primarily promotes or objects to a person, policy, political candidate, issue or action."
A total of sixteen public commentators took the stand to speak about the proposed ordinance. The first speaker, Dale Hudson, said the board would be regulating and controlling free speech if the ordinance were to pass.
“Restricting so drastically the times and locations where we are allowed to speak is as much a violation of the First Amendment as restricting the content of our speech,” he said.
Courtney Geels, the Republican nominee for North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, said that the Board of County Commissioners would show they do not care about the Constitution if they passed the ordinance.
“If you take the steps of passing and enforcing this regulation, there will be legal ramifications on each and every one of you,” she said.
Charles Lopez, the Republican candidate for the North Carolina State House District 50, said that the ordinance has “noble intent” but is a "PR nightmare" for the board due to its wording.
"Our noble intent was to protect the schools," he said. "That's not what our ordinance is saying."
He asked that the ordinance not be held to a vote that night because of the constituents who expressed their concerns at the meeting. The board was continually interrupted by audience commotion during the meeting, and speakers often went over their allotted time.
"I must say that I’m somewhat disappointed in some of the reaction, even though I'm glad to see you here,” Commissioner Anna Richards said after the public commenters concluded.
Richards said she would like more information about the protests' harm to students.
Commissioner Jean Hamilton said that there is a mental health epidemic in the country and that it's important to create a school climate where all students feel safe.
“There’s different ways that parents can work together to be heard at the school without affecting the school environment of the students,” she said.
Commissioner Earl McKee called attention to the value of protest.
"This document, while it might not be overly aggressive, creates a slippery slope," he said.
McKee motioned for the board to reject the recommendation to approve the ordinance. No one seconded this motion.
Hamilton motioned to delay the vote until October to give the board time to deal with other issues that may arise and allow input from the schools. The board voted on the motion, which passed 6-1 with McKee as the only dissenting vote.
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