Following the chaotic end of a gathering outside of the Albemarle County School Board’s meeting Thursday to discuss adding a proposed ban of Confederate images to the division’s dress code, other free-speech issues have emerged: the rights of residents to protest and assemble outside of public meetings, and where those rights potentially end.
About 50 people assembled outside the public meeting; after a few minutes, their chants and speeches could be heard inside the meeting chambers. A few minutes later, a deputy chief of police began asking protesters to quiet down. When they did not, he then asked them to disperse. When they refused, he began arresting people. After six arrests were made inside and outside Lane Auditorium and police cleared the anteroom, several members of the public and media were initially refused re-entry to the meeting.
“During the initial altercations, it became fairly hectic,” Albemarle police Lt. Terry Walls said Friday. “Once things were stabilized and secured, we were able to place some people at the entrances in an attempt to keep people that had been banned from coming back in, because we had witnessed several people who we believe had left that were part of the problem and then tried to re-enter the building.”
A large group was asked to leave the antechamber by County Executive Jeff Richardson, Walls said, and some people tried to re-enter. The police didn’t want people who had been disruptive to return, Walls said. However, he also said that police at the entrance didn’t have a good way to know whom those people might be and could have inadvertently kept non-disruptive members of the public and media out.
Richardson said he was unable to comment when reached Friday. County Police Chief Ron Lantz declined to comment, citing the pending court cases of those arrested.
All six of the people who were arrested were charged with trespassing; two of the six also were charged with obstruction of justice.
There is precedent for keeping disruptive individuals out of public meetings and for shutting down protests that are interrupting meetings, several First Amendment scholars say — but it’s not clear if a whole group of people should be ordered out while the meeting continues. Similarly, public buildings are often the sites of protests, but common spaces in those buildings, like lobbies, are not always open to free-speech activities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
The public generally has the right to observe public meetings — but not necessarily to participate — according to Clay Hansen, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, an Albemarle-based think tank that advocates for freedom of speech.
“And then if your participation becomes disruptive, you might lose your ability to participate in the meeting,” Hansen said. “Once you cross that line into disruptive comment, you also don’t get a second bite at the apple if you get removed.”
Still, according to Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a public body probably shouldn’t remove individuals for disruptive conduct, but then continue a meeting while keeping out a whole group of people.
“While there is some precedent for removing disruptive individuals, I don’t think it is proper to keep out certain segments of the population,” Rhyne wrote in an email Thursday evening. “Otherwise, it’s not a meeting open to ‘the public’ under [the Freedom of Information Act].”
In a statement Thursday evening and in a letter to the editor published in Friday’s Daily Progress, School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff indicated that she viewed the wearing of Confederate symbols as hurtful but protected speech, and that ongoing disruptions of public meetings would be met with requests to leave and, potentially, arrests.
The group that organized the protest, the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, released a statement Friday saying the protest was merely an effort to be heard after the group felt the board remained unresponsive to requests to amend the county schools’ dress code to include a ban on Confederate images.
“Because the board shut down our scheduled 8/23 opportunity, we were determined to be heard on 8/30,” the group wrote, referencing a previous meeting that ended after one public comment. “When the board tried to silence our voices yet again by removing public comment from the agenda, we called a community gathering for the same time as the board meeting. We refused to muzzle ourselves, and then the board ordered the police to either intimidate us into silence or arrest us. We did not back down.”
The board has said it plans to continue working on its non-discrimination policies and hopes to finalize a new policy by the end of the year.