GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Gaston County commissioners will discuss a proposed ordinance on Tuesday night that would implement rules and regulations for public protests in the county.
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’.
“Just having the right to express and hold our governing officials accountable, besides the ballot box. This is something we can do around the year,” said Ro’Shaun McClendon, who is a leader with the Gaston County Freedom Fighters.
He says any restriction on their free speech is questionable.
“I just felt targeted, it just seems, like it was simply targeted at those who have been protesting about the monument,” said McClendon. “It’s very obvious the board is trying everything to change the attention of this county and change the narrative around the statue.”
The Gaston County Freedom Fighters believe commissioners are adding this ordinance to stop them from protesting the Confederate statue outside the courthouse.
During the summer of 2020, dozens of protests happened outside the courthouse calling for the county to remove a Confederate statue.
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 Gaston County Courthouse.
Cloninger spoke to WBTV in a Zoom interview at the beginning of February.
“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,” the sheriff said.
Commissioner Ronnie Worley agrees, saying the new ordinance, requiring 24 hours notice before protests, will help to keep protesters safer.
“There are certainly people on both sides of the issues and there have been times when they’re there together. And there’s a potential for conflict,” Worley said. “We want people to be able to protest, we want people to be able to be heard. We don’t want to prohibit free speech. We just want some way law enforcement can be notified.”
“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 peace occurs,” Sheriff Cloninger told WBTV in a previous interview done earlier in February.
A previous ordinance, which has since been withdrawn, originally asked for 30 days’ notice before protests and a $250 fee associated with the protest.
That was initially discussed at the end of January but is no longer an option after the county attorney discussed issues with enforcing.
Commissioner Worley, who originally sponsored that ordinance, said he disagreed with it after reading it closer.