Demonstrators question enforcement of picketing statute in Gaston County

Over the last few weeks, several protests have been held outside of the Gaston County Courthouse in Gastonia.
After several local protests at county courthouses, WBTV's Alex Giles dug into the constitutionality of protest statutes.
Published: Aug. 10, 2022 at 7:27 PM EDT
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GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Multiple demonstrators have voiced concern over the constitutionality of a state statute being enforced in Gaston County.

The statute, G.S. 14-225.1, entitled ‘picketing or parading’, places limitations on the rights of demonstrators who are gathered outside of a courthouse. It specifically notes that citizens need to remain 300 feet away from a courthouse to prevent the influence of a judge, juror, witness or district attorney.

Over the last few weeks, several protests have been held outside of the Gaston County Courthouse in Gastonia.

Some citizens have protested outside of the courthouse in the wake of the deadly officer-involved shooting of 29-year-old Jason Lipscomb. A separate group has gathered multiple times to publicly advocate for the release of bodycam video that shows the controversial arrest of Joshua Rohrer, a military veteran.

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Both groups have encountered the same dilemma; sheriff’s deputies from the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office have instructed them to move further away from the county courthouse during their demonstrations. During multiple gatherings, deputies have even asked the demonstrators to move off the public sidewalk surrounding the courthouse.

Scotty Reid, a military veteran turned journalist, was at a protest for Lipscomb in late July.

“My intent was just to record and document the actual protest,” Reid explained to WBTV in an interview.

Reid said his intentions changed once law enforcement informed the protesters that they would need to move 300 feet away from the county courthouse.

“Once the sheriff’s department started telling them that they had to leave the yard of the courthouse, and push them across the street 300 feet, even past the sidewalk, I became a protester at that point,” said Reid.

He said he decided that he was not going to move from the sidewalk, even after being threatened with arrest. Video recorded on Reid’s phone shows him speaking to the deputies after the other protesters had already moved across the street, further away from the courthouse. Reid said one of the deputies tried to persuade him to follow the other protesters.

“He actually said to me quietly, ‘I really don’t want to arrest anyone out here’, trying to get me to go across the street, and I told him, ‘you know I’m a veteran, right?’ I was like, ‘I can’t move off the sidewalk. I can’t move off the constitution’,” explained Reid.

After refusing to leave the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, Reid was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for picketing or parading. He told WBTV that he felt like he was protecting his own first amendment rights as well as the rights of the other protesters.

Mike Ross, a Gaston County man who has rallied with Rohrer, said his group was also moved by deputies during a public demonstration.

“I don’t care what your idea is, to stand on a public sidewalk and speak your mind is constitutionally protected,” said Ross.

Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger defended his deputies, explaining that they are enforcing the law when moving protesters away from the courthouse.

“This case has gone up and the court of appeals did not rule either way on its constitutionality so right now it is constitutional and proper charge. It is not my place to make a decision as to whether something is constitutional or not. That’s for the court. My job is to enforce it,” said Cloninger.

Bill Marshall, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it is not uncommon for people to challenge limitations placed on the first amendment.

“Any limit has to satisfy certain constitutional standards and one of the things you look at is, ‘Is it excessive? Is 300 feet for example too far?’ If the law said you could only protest across town, for example, I don’t think that would survive first amendment scrutiny. A question might be, ‘Why this 300-foot limit? Is that too excessive to not allow people to exercise their very important first amendment right?’,” questioned Marshall.

Reid said he firmly believes the statute is unconstitutional.

“That North Carolina statute they showed me, that’s unconstitutional, and they’ll keep trying to use it until I guess somebody takes them to court and if I have to go to court. If the prosecutor prosecutes me. If they get a conviction, I’ll fight this all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Reid.

Cloninger said he spoke with Gaston County District Attorney Travis Page about the enforcement of the picketing statute. He said the two have decided that the 300 feet limitation will only be enforced while the courthouse is open to the public and actual proceedings are taking place.

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