Local law limits picketing


Do you have something to say outside the Carroll County Courthouse?

Well, unless you have permission from Westminster police, you might as well pack up your picket and head home.

The combination of a decades-old Westminster ordinance and a long-established courthouse regulation makes almost any form of protest, public gathering or picketing on the court's property impossible without an official sanction from the government.

The rights to peaceably assemble and "petition the government for a redress of grievances" have been part of the U.S. Constitution since 1791. But, since World War II, Westminster has made any unregistered public gathering of people illegal.

The city's parades and picket ordinance -- which also outlaws the public display of flags of countries with which America has no diplomatic ties -- applies to one or more pickets.

The issue of the city's ordinance and the Carroll Circuit Court's general prohibition of protests or demonstrations on "courthouse property" was raised last week after Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman held a political rally on the courthouse steps.

More than 30 people -- some holding political signs -- gathered with Mr. Hickman the afternoon of Oct. 18 for about 20 minutes.

But while the group was quietly proclaiming the virtues of Mr. Hickman, it also was breaking the law. No one had bothered to secure a permit from Westminster police or alert court officials of the gathering.

The prosecutor's rally continued unimpeded, in contrast to what happened in August when a gathering of 40 midwifery supporters was forced by county sheriff's deputies and Westminster police to disperse. Sheriff's deputies knew that Mr. Hickman's group didn't have a permit or the court's permission to gather. But, said the deputy who ordered the midwife group to disperse in August, there were "no complaints" about Mr. Hickman or his group.

To Mr. Hickman, the disparate treatment of the two groups was unfortunate. He said he was aware of the picket ordinance, but he believed it did not apply to him in this instance.

"We're not in the business of breaking the law, but I don't think this is what the ordinance had in mind," the prosecutor said.

Not so, says W. Benjamin Brown, Westminster's mayor.

"It's wrong. If they don't have a permit, they shouldn't be allowed to do that," the mayor said. "If I had known that they were there without one, I would have sent officers to ask them to leave."

According to courthouse and county officials throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area, Carroll's courthouse appears to stand virtually alone in its restrictions on protests and gatherings.

"Regulations on protests? I don't think we have any," said Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Baltimore Circuit Court's administrative judge. "What we do is very simple: There's a constitutional right to peacefully picket.

"You can stay out there all day, as far as we're concerned, as long as you're not blocking any entrances or exits."

Court and county officials in Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties couldn't recall any specific regulations that would apply to demonstrations, gatherings or pickets near their courthouses.

Baltimore County, for instance, has a gatherings ordinance, but all it requires is notifying the county of the time, date and place of a gathering. And, unlike in Westminster, lone pickets or demonstrators don't need to ask permission of the government.

"This is mostly a notification kind of thing, to let the police know if they need to provide extra traffic control or protection," said Eugene Freeman, the chief of Baltimore County's licensing and regulation services.

Westminster's picket and parade ordinance -- which city officials defend on the grounds of public safety -- has been lambasted by the American Civil Liberties Union. Add the court's denial of protests on its property, and the situation becomes "absurd," says Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.

"The whole notion that you would have to restrict people who want to picket seems to be excessive government meddling in the expression of ideas," he said.

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