Group gathering rules shaken in Memphis

By Erica Holmes

“Do I hit the gavel? Attorney Wade?” councilman Chairman Edmund Ford, jr. asked an attorney for the city for what seemed like legal permission after city council voted 13-0 to amend an ordinance on public assembly permits; giving the director of police broad authority on the first amendment matter.  Councilman Harold Collins presented the item several weeks ago amidst the looming Klu Klux Klan rally, scheduled to take place on the courthouse steps on March 30.

Attorney Allan Wade clarified that the city is being careful not to violate the first amendment right for an organization to peaceably assemble, noting that it is a very gray area in law.

“Any restriction put on freedom of speech has to be narrowly tailored to achieve a legitimate government interest,” Wade said.
Because of the ordinance’s first amendment implications, it will not be enacted until April 2 – three days after the KKK marches in Memphis. The city decided it would be happening too fast to be deemed legal. Wade felt like they would be imposing unfair regulations upon the klan in regards to their right to free speech. However, state gun laws and the Civil Rights Act made it easy to for the city to ban the members from wearing masks or carrying guns on public property.

Last month the NAACP joined forces with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to encourage Memphians to do the right thing by not showing up to the event, which is scheduled on a religious weekend.

It may seem odd that the slightest amount of sensitivity be given to an organization that is prone to rioting, “Inciting fear and anger among a largely poor community in a powder keg effect,” Collins said regarding to the organization’s past actions.

And the downside to the ordinance is that it will affect every out-of-state group, not just hate groups. The city is not taking the first amendment lightly, but they’re also not leaving Memphis susceptible to be derided by an irresponsible party.

When the KKK rioted in Memphis during the summer of 1998, the resulting riots overwhelmed expectations of the police and the city council forethought. As a result the city and its taxpayers footed the bill.

This time the city noted that a non-resident, from MS, used a post office box in another state to present the application for the klan. Councilmen Collins explained that the new ordinance would require this person to pay this so called ensurity bond in order to be approved to gather.

It seems like a lot of power for one person; the amendment will give police director Toney Armstrong complete latitude to use both his discretion and his forces in allowing future groups to gather within Memphis city limits. The director has permission to bill the organization upfront 50% of a group’s estimated cost of security. This is being called an “ensurity bond” and seems very similar to a safety deposit.

However, The city will not require citizens of Shelby County to provide ensurity bonds, unless the member of the organization applies on behalf of a group in which a majority of its members live out-of-state. In that situation, the person who applies for the application is solely responsible for the entire groups actions and whatever debt is incurred – at least that’s councilman Harold Collins’ expectation.

“When people file applications to parade in Shelby county and cause us to expend city resources for the protection of city assets and citizens, they should be required to pay the cost of what it would cost the city to pay an off duty police officer,” Collins said before the amended ordinance passed.

In other news, MLGW’s request to pay an out-of-town landscaping company nearly half a million dollars for mowing and grounds maintenance was also considered by city council on Tuesday.

The item was referred back to councilwoman Janis Fullilove’s committee, upon councilmen Lee Harris’ request to separate the issue.  Council members will not vote until they have the MLGW special committee’s recommendation. Councilmen Collins recommended that the committee consider making grounds maintenance and in-house service, or a city worker’s task. MLGW maintains that the work can be done less expensively when it is contracted, it is up to Fulliove’s committee to reach a decision on the matter, which directly affects MLGW customers’ rates.

It all goes back to City Council’s August 3, 2005 decision to give preference to local companies. The “local preference” ordinance gives businesses within city limits within 5% of the lowest bid preference over a business outside of the city.

President and CEO of MLGW, Jerry Collins, defended the decision to not give the job to the local company because they were the second highest bidder.  However councilman Reid Hedgepath reminded the president of MLGW if they had considered the local preference ordinance, perhaps the local company would have qualified. To which the MLGW representative agreed, but maintained that the company failed to fill out the paper work. Though the company has done work with MLGW before, they were still required to fill out more paper work. “It was an oversight on the their part,” MLGW CEO, Collins, said at the meeting.

(described from City Council Meeting on Tuesday, 3/19/13 )


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