From The Rutherford Institute:
Rutherford Institute Warns City of Williamsburg Against Criminalizing Expressive Activities in Historic Areas, Calls on Council to Foster Speech
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. —John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is calling on the Williamsburg City Council to set the standard for a vibrant community that not only protects the freedoms prized so highly by our Founders but celebrates them, as well, by rejecting Proposed Ordinance #12-05, which would essentially establish free speech zones within the City’s historic areas. Whitehead warns that the proposed ordinance is so overly broad that it would severely restrict expressive activities on Duke of Gloucester Street within the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and the Merchants Square Area, and could even be construed as criminalizing even casual interactions taking place outside these areas. Calling the restrictions “wholly contrary to the guarantee to freedom of speech contained in the First Amendment,” The Rutherford Institute is urging that Williamsburg reject the proposed ordinance and continue the city’s legacy of protecting and fostering freedom of speech.
The Rutherford Institute’s letter to the City of Williamsburg is available here.
“The City of Williamsburg, the cradle of the first liberty, has had a long and proud history of protecting and fostering freedom of speech,” said Whitehead. “While other communities have succumbed to the authoritarian impulse to adopt free speech zones as a thinly veiled effort to minimize or altogether mute dissent and the free exchange of ideas in public (or to advance raw commercial interests), it would be a profound misstep by the Williamsburg City Council to adopt an ordinance that flies in the face of the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech.”
If adopted by the Williamsburg City Council, Proposed Ordinance #12-05 would amend §9-39 of the Williamsburg Code to severely restrict expressive activities within the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and the adjacent Merchants Square Area, except in two “presentation areas.” The ordinance apparently arose out of a concern about speakers blocking pedestrian and vehicular traffic or creating noise in excess of levels established in the City Code. Pointing out that sidewalks and other public areas have immemorially been considered open to the public for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that the Proposed Ordinance does not pass First Amendment muster because it would burden speech and expressive activity far more than necessary to protect the safety and convenience of travelers along the rights-of-way and the welfare of those shopping or dining in the area. Indeed, by prohibiting all First Amendment-protected expressive activity outside the two “free speech zones,” the Proposed Ordinance would criminalize a broad range of innocuous activity.
Whitehead also points out that countless commercial, non-profit, political, historical, religious, musical and other events involving free expression have occurred, and do occur, on Duke of Gloucester Street on a regular or intermittent basis, including some by Colonial Williamsburg personnel. The Institute’s letter suggests that the proposed ordinance is aimed at curtailing the activities of street preachers and any undesired reactions on the part of listeners, which as Whitehead concludes, amounts to patently unconstitutional content and viewpoint discrimination.