Conversation continues regarding proposed Gaston County ordinance that would regulate protests

Gaston County divided over possible protest regulations

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Gaston County commissioners will once again discuss a proposed ordinance that would implement rules and regulations for public protests in the county.

The latest draft of the ordinance, designed to outline the county notification process for public assemblies, will be discussed at next week’s meeting of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners. Commissioner Kim Johnson, the sponsor of the latest draft of the ordinance, said the item will be discussed at the commissioners’ February 23 meeting.

Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger said he originally requested the ordinance after a series of protests in the summer of 2020. Multiple protests centered around the confederate monument in front of the county courthouse.

Cloninger spoke to WBTV in a Zoom interview Tuesday afternoon.

“All I was asking for was the ability to have some type of notice of how many people were coming, who was coming, who was the organizing party, so we could prepare to properly protect anybody protesting, any counter-protesters, and the public during those times,” explained the sheriff.

The latest draft of the ordinance states that notification of county officials would be required for gatherings of 25 people or more, a notification form would need to be completed, protests within 50 feet of any county buildings would be prohibited and 24 hour notice would be required prior to a protest.

The draft ordinance does note that protest consideration would also be given to ‘spontaneous responses to current events’.

“I believe in everyone’s free speech. I believe everyone should have the right to peacefully express their concerns and that’s the reason I need the notice to help ensure that a peace occurs,” Cloninger told WBTV.

Not everyone agrees that an ordinance is needed for protest regulation.

Ciera Mack, secretary of Gaston County Citizens for Change, said she has been a part of local activism in Gaston County. She said she doesn’t think public protest needs to be regulated by a county ordinance.

“They get to control how we use our first amendment right. That’s not right,” said Mack regarding the proposed ordinance.

The activist said she doesn’t think the ordinance is necessary and thinks it would be difficult to enforce.

“I understand what Sheriff Cloninger is trying to do. I understand that he wants to keep us safe, but I also understand that it’s targeted. It’s targeted toward our first amendment right and any time you’re targeting us and telling us that you want to know whenever we’re going to express ourselves, that’s a problem,” said Mack.

Gaston County Commissioner Kim Johnson, a former employee of the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office, is the sponsor of the most recent draft of the ordinance. She spoke to WBTV in a phone interview Tuesday.

“I don’t believe it’s going to violate anyone’s first amendment rights. I believe it will be okay and if something happens and we need to amend something, I think that’s something we can look at doing,” said Johnson.

Mack said that Gaston County Citizens for Change is planning to hold a townhall Zoom meeting Thursday where the proposed ordinance will be discussed.

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