Restricting Use of the Statehouse Grounds

S.944 and S.935 each seek to impose limits on the use of statehouse grounds by requiring groups to receive some form of permission before use.

S.944 requires the Director of the Department of Administration (DOA) to create regulations designating permissible demonstration areas and prohibited demonstration areas on the statehouse grounds. The DOA would also be tasked with creating a permit requirement for events and demonstrations planned on the statehouse grounds, which requires the permit be submitted at least ten days prior to the event. Upon submission permits would be reviewed by the Director of the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and the Director of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to review for safety or crowd control concerns. If the directors of DPS and SLED determine the event would create a legitimate concern in either of these areas the permit would be denied. The DOA could only issue one permit per day for permissible demonstration areas. Authorized law enforcement would have the ability to remove individuals from the statehouse grounds (regardless of permits) if “their continued presence and activity would cause a threat to public security, health or well-being”. Individuals refusing to comply with such removals would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

S.935 is more succinct than S.944. S.935 requires any non-resident individual or organization that wants to hold an event on the statehouse grounds to provide the DOA with written notice 30 days in advance of the planned event. The DOA could dictate the information required in the notice, and upon receipt of the notice could grant permission to use the statehouse grounds provided it charges the organizer a reasonable fee for use of the grounds. The proposed event could not be held prior to the department receiving the fee.

Each of these bills raise Constitutional issues, particularly First Amendment issues. Last summer during a meeting of the statehouse committee both the DOA Director Nolan Wiggins, and SLED Chief Mark Keel expressed concerns over attempts to restrict use of the statehouse grounds. Both officials cited possible Constitutional problems and federal court precedent against such actions.

South Carolina legislators shouldn’t need much reminder on this front, as it was only two years that the state was successfully sued by protesters who were arrested for trespassing on the statehouse grounds. The courts ordered the state to pay $192,000 to the protesters for violating their First Amendment rights.

Lawmakers may not like the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment but they cannot legislate them away. If lawmakers choose to ignore or violate these it rights it may be at the state’s financial peril.

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