Local residents opposed to a new special events ordinance in Rehoboth say it is unconstitutional because it limits free speech and the right to assemble.
Addressing Rehoboth commissioners during a Jan. 7 workshop, Joanne Cabry, a county resident with a Rehoboth mailing address, said whether the commissioners intended to or not, they voted in favor of deterring citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to assemble in the public places of Rehoboth.
Under the recently adopted ordinance, Cabry said, participants in events like March for Our Lives and Hands Across the Sand would now not be able to obtain a permit.
“Both of these marches were peaceful. Each of these events was organized by a group of local citizens responding to a national call by grassroots organizations to gather on a specific date,” she said.
Approved in October, the city’s new special events ordinance applicants must submit a request at least eight weeks before the event and pay a nonrefundable base fee of $600. The fee allows the use of city facilities, including the Bandstand and Boardwalk, and provides an extra-duty police officer for three hours.
Don Flood, also a county resident with a Lewes mailing address, questioned the need to apply for a permit eight weeks in advance of an event.
“We live in an age where issues erupt in an instant on Facebook. Where significant, new policies are announced on Twitter,” he said. “Two months to respond? In today’s world, two days can be too long.”
County resident Bill Zak questioned the $600 fee. That kind of prohibitive and nonrefundable fee, and insurance and clean-up levies imposed on citizens who are exercising First Amendment rights to assembly have repeatedly been struck down in court, all the way up to the Supreme Court, he said.
“Anything more than the most modest fees for processing permits have, understandably, been ruled unconstitutional,” Zak said.
Rehoboth Police Chief Keith Banks and Lt. Jamie Riddle were on hand to defend the measure.
Riddle, who crafted the ordinance, said the department has a responsibility to make sure that people who don’t want to be a part of a protest or other event are safe. He said the reason to hold an event in Rehoboth is because there’s an instant audience.
Freedom of speech is important, but so is public safety, Riddle said.
Banks said the city gets hundreds of event requests every year, and most don’t fall under what the department would call a special event. He said the police department has the expertise to determine what kind of personnel is going to be needed for an event.
Let’s give it some time, Banks said, adding the fee already existed, but event organizers were charged on the back end, after the event.
When the ordinance was approved, it called for the police department to prepare an application form and procedural guidelines. During the recent meeting, Riddle said an application form has now been completed.
In a follow-up email Jan. 16, Riddle said the organizers of Walk for Our Lives was charged a fee, but Hands Across the Sand was not because, he said, the event demographics didn’t fall under the definition of a special event.
Riddle said the 8-week submission deadline was developed to provide ample time for all the involved departments – communication, police, bandstand, streets, building and licensing – to review the details of any proposed event plans and ensure the appropriate resources are in place. In particular for the police, he said, larger events quite often involve the use of outside resources.
“The availability of these resources is quite often dependent upon advanced notice and planning,” Riddle said, adding that 8 weeks is the suggested minimum for submission.
Under the new ordinance, there’s a possibility an event like March for Our Lives would be denied. Riddle said if an application were submitted and the event fit the definition of a special event, the application would be denied.
“However, there are many other platforms or locations from which they could express their message,” he said. “They could use the media or possibly research a different venue within our area or county.”
The ordinance requires the city manager to approve or deny the special event within 30 days of receiving the application. If an application is denied, that decision may be appealed before the board of commissioners. If the appeal is filed 10 or more days before the board’s next regular meeting, it will be heard at that meeting. If the appeal is filed less than 10 days before the next regular meeting, it will be heard at the next regular meeting unless a special meeting is scheduled to hear the appeal.
After the workshop, Mayor Paul Kuhns said he has no plan to amend the ordinance.