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Catawba Co. approves new free-speech ordinance

 

JENNA-LEY HARRISON

Staff Writer

 

Nearly three months after a Catawba County grassroots group stirred county officials to rethink the constitutionality of free speech gatherings on county grounds, change has come.

Catawba County officials initially wouldn’t allow members of Catawba Valley Citizens Against Hate (CVCAH) and other protestors of a Maiden church pastor’s comments against gays to gather the end of May at the Justice Center in Newton since the group didn’t request to use the county grounds at least two weeks in advance of their free speech protest.

The group sought to use the Center for a peaceful demonstration opposing Providence Baptist Church leader Rev. Charles Worley’s “hate speech” against the homosexual community in one of his spring sermons. The pastor particularly called for gays to be allowed to die off after placing them inside a large electric fence.

The sermon, uploaded to YouTube, gained local and national media attention and piqued the interest of several civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF).

Only after the ACLU-NCLF questioned the Catawba County ordinance’s lawfulness did county officials decide to revise the rules and grant the group permission to hold the rally.

The new ordinance and policy was approved Aug. 20 by a unanimous 5-0 vote by the Catawba County Board of Commissioners, according to David Hardin, public information officer for the County Manager’s Office.

County officials never considered the ordinance an issue until CVCAH requested using county grounds for their free speech event rather than a fundraiser or other type of scheduled assembly.

“The issue was first drafted in the mid-90s because different groups were reserving meeting space or holding fundraisers such as Relay for Life so the ordinance focused on that,” Catawba County Attorney Debra Bechtel told the Times-News last week.

“It wasn’t until this group (CVCAH)…wanted to use the grounds for pure free speech issues that it caused us to look at the ordinance from that perspective.”

Bechtel and other officials revised the law after looking at rulings from several U.S. Supreme Court cases that occurred after the mid-90s and involved free speech issues.

“We said we would rewrite our ordinance and comply with the law,” she said.

The revised ordinance now clearly includes free speech as one of the motivating factors behind a group’s decision to assemble, stating that assembly “means to make a public display or demonstration of sentiment for or against a person or cause, including protesting which may include the distribution of leaflets or handbills, the display of signs and any oral communication or speech” and may also include “an effort to persuade or influence, including all expressive and symbolic conduct, whether active or passive, so long as the conduct does not violate the law.”

For more information on the revised ordinance and other Catawba County policies and laws, visit catawbacountync.gov or call Catawba County government at (828) 465-8200.

 

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