Responding to questions posed by Historic City News readers, St Augustine City Manager John Regan offered answers and some assurances to those who were uncertain about attending the Saturday evening LightUp! Night celebration.
Regan was familiar with threats posed by St Paul’s AME pastor Ron Rawls for what Rawl’s says are city officials who have not really listened to him and other African-Americans in the community who want the civil war memorial removed from the Plaza.
“LightUp! Night is my favorite community event of the year,” Regan told editor Michael Gold today. “It’s a chance to see friends and neighbors in a relaxed and casual setting, walk around town, get a cup of hot chocolate, and participate in a unique start to the Christmas season.”
We told Regan that our office has received dozens of letters and hundreds of comments expressing concern over security during the LightUp! Night ceremony. We asked what steps were being taken to assure the safety of participants?
Without getting into tactical details, which we agreed would be completely inappropriate, Regan said that as our world changes, the city changes. He gave his assurance that the safety of participants is priority-1. He explained that Chiefs Fox and Cuthbert have been aware of heightened concerns for more than two weeks. There has been communication with the city’s emergency management agencies and their counterparts at the county; as well as the LightUp! Night event management team and St Paul AME.
Assistant City Attorney Denise May explained this afternoon that, so long as protestors are peacefully assembled and obey traffic and pedestrian laws, they can protest without a permit.
Regan confirmed that no permit was issued to Rawls for a protest Saturday evening. An official government restriction on speech before it occurs — such as a requirement to obtain a permit before you can speak — is known as a “prior restraint on speech” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989)). In Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, 349 U.S. 147 (1969), the United States Supreme Court made clear that the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights are “prior restraint”.
Picketing, protesting and marching for redress of grievances are all forms of expressive conduct. When conducted in public places, such as the public sidewalk and public parks, they are deemed by the court to be traditional public forums. Therefore, they are afforded the greatest protection for first amendment expressive conduct. The U. S. Supreme Court holds that public streets and sidewalks are held in trust for the use by the public for the specific purpose of assembly, the free exchange of ideas and other expressive conduct. (Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 406 (1939)).
The City’s ordinances (Sec. 18-55) only prohibit picketing or protesting “by force and violence” or in such a way as to “block the entrance to buildings or interfere with the normal and safe passage of pedestrian or vehicular traffic”.
Christmas or not, and Christian or not, Rawls is committed to preventing white residents and their families, who he calls “white supremacists”, from coming to the Plaza and enjoying an evening of Christmas carols, and holiday entertainment because he doesn’t like the unanimous decision of the commission not to accede to Rawls’ demands to remove the memorial obelisk from the Plaza.
Commissioners recently sat through two hours of public speakers, for and against the memorial, during two separate meetings, but that was not enough. Since it did not resolve the matter to his satisfaction, Rawls is now saying “until the dialogue begins, protests will continue”.
Buses of out-of-town protesters will be in St Augustine a few hours and then they are going back to their homes in Jacksonville, or Gainesville, or Daytona Beach, Regan pointed out. Residents are already home and Saturday night, LightUp! Night, is a special gift back to the community. Regan ended our discussion saying he hopes everyone comes out and enjoys the evening. This will be the best LightUp! Night ever. The city is safe.