Officials in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Bexley held an emergency meeting Wednesday night to try to come up with ways to stop protests from taking place outside the home of the state’s Department of Health director. So far there’ve been two relatively small protests on the sidewalk at the residence of Dr. Amy Acton over her public health orders restricting business and imposing social distancing measures as efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the state, and city council members debated an ordinance that would have limited or blocked protests from taking place.
The bad news is that the first impulse of city council members was to attack the First Amendment and Second Amendment rights of Ohioans. The good news is that the politicians received pushback from the city’s police chief, a constitutional law professor, and even one of Acton’s neighbors.
Tim Madison, who lives on Acton’s street, described himself as a “proud supporter” of Acton.
“Personally, I believe that protesting in front of anyone’s home is abhorrent, unacceptable in any manner whatsoever,” he said. “But as an attorney and a proud American that believes in the First Amendment, I recognize and respect the right to protest, provided protest is consistent with all applicable laws.”
He applauded Mayor Ben Kessler’s presence during the protests and his decision to place signs on the street that read, “Please exercise your First Amendment rights without disturbing the peace.”
Bexley, Ohio may not have an ordinance prohibiting protesting in residential areas, but it does have a noise ordinance, and even protestors have to abide by that law. So, loudspeakers are out, but signs are okay. Bexley Police Chief Larry Rinehart told council members that if they did try to target protestors with an ordinance, it would only backfire.
“We know, if we try to heavy hand them into leaving,” Chief Rinehart said. “That just increases your crowd. It becomes their Alamo. It becomes their battle cry.”
The chief’s right. As I explain on today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co (which you can watch in the video window above), disobedience is in our cultural DNA. Tell an American they’re not allowed to do something, and that only makes us more inclined to do it anyway. The Bexley city council members were also reminded of this fact by Capitol University law professor Dan Kobil.
“It’s a high bar,” Kobil said. “They have to have an intent to harm. They also have a second amendment right and an Ohio right to carry a weapon.”
Council members discussed possibilities for an ordinance such as requiring the protesters to keep moving or making them social distance. However, Kobil explained how difficult it is to put legislation in place regarding constitutional rights. Chief Rinehart also said a new city law may escalate things more.
“They would see this for what it is,” he said. “They would know this is a new law restricting what they consider to be their constitutional rights.”
Instead of calling out the SWAT team and rolling up on protestors in the Bexley Police Department’s APC, Rinehart says his officers are engaging with the protestors.
Rinehart said if police push back and violate the rights of protesters, more people will turn out.
“We try to have the officers we need in the area monitoring, but we don’t go toe to toe with protesters unless we have to,” he said. “And we’ve had to have some contact, but it’s not heavy handed. We don’t roll in and make mass arrests and start writing a lot of citations. We try to work with them to not violate their rights, but to also maintain peace in the community. The hard part about this is just their presence is so offensive to a community like ours.”
As I’ve written about here before, I’m not sure how effective re-open protests are in general, but I’m positive that these protestors aren’t attracting many people to their cause by protesting outside of Acton’s home. This isn’t the governor’s mansion, but a private residence in a Columbus suburb, and if anything, it’s likely to generate sympathy for Acton’s neighbors if not the doctor herself. The protests have been small so far, with 10-15 people protesting, and Rinehart is right when he says government pushback would only increase the turnout, as the protests would become more of a response to the city’s ordinance than a protest against the Department of Health director.
I’m also positive that however ineffective their protest might be, it’s perfectly legal and should remain that way. People have a right to protest in this country, even if you think their cause is idiotic. It doesn’t matter why they’re protesting, or who they’re protesting, and while the Supreme Court has upheld some restrictions on the time and place of protests, I have a hard time believing that the ordinance considered by the city council would get the green light from SCOTUS.
However reluctantly, the city council in Bexley did the right thing by not taking any action to target the protestors. It would be a wise public relations move for the protestors to acknowledge that people who aren’t their target are also being impacted by their protest of Acton, and maybe hold a silent protest next time around. It would also be a good move for law enforcement agencies across the country to take the advice of Chief Rinehart and work to de-escalate conflict when protests over the current shutdown orders break out, instead of potentially adding fuel to the fire with a heavy-handed response. The judge in Dallas, Texas who ordered hairstylist Shelley Luther to jail after she re-opened for business in violation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order will never be anyone’s folk hero. His jailing of Luther won’t spark a movement of judges across the country to jail more business owners. We are a free people, and if politicians want the respect, trust, and yes, cooperation of their constituents during a time of an emergency, then they must treat those constituents like the adults that they are; individuals whose natural and constitutional rights don’t disappear simply because an emergency has been declared.