Don’t stymie demonstrators

Maria Calef, of Columbia, S.C., waves a sign as she celebrates in front of the South Carolina statehouse, Thursday, July 9, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. More than 50 years after South Carolina raised a Confederate flag at its Statehouse to protest the civil rights movement, the rebel banner is scheduled to be removed Friday morning during a ceremony. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The S.C. Senate on Thursday wisely voted down a bill that would have restricted people’s ability to demonstrate at the Statehouse.

Not only was it unnecessary, it could have discouraged people from speaking out on issues of importance to the state. And indeed, legislators ought to be looking for ways to encourage popular participation in government.

Elected officials who really listen to the people they represent often make wiser decisions — or certainly more informed decisions.

And if giving people a way to speak their minds arouses their interest, they might be more eager to vote. That’s vital in a state where fewer than 60 percent of eligible people cast ballots, even in presidential elections.

Lawmakers who killed the bill clearly recognize that freedom of speech and freedom to assemble are key to the country’s foundation.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, sponsored the bill, which would have required law enforcement agencies to help determine which demonstration permits to grant. While they could be helpful in assessing safety, the rule would have complicated the process.

Mr. Peeler’s point of reference was a day last July, shortly after the Confederate battle flag was removed from the Statehouse grounds, when both the Ku Klux Klan and a group affiliated with the New Black Panther Movement rallied. Their permits overlapped by an hour.

It was indeed a recipe for trouble, so eight law enforcement agencies provided security. Five protesters were arrested.

But surely the state Department of Administration could have foreseen that tension and scheduled the events at different times. It shouldn’t take a SLED officer to figure that out.

Denying permits could leave people with something to say feeling frustrated that they can’t. Even when the message is objectionable, it is better to hear people out.

Further, law enforcement officials are trained to make decisions based on public safety, not on civil rights. So in December, when they canceled a S.C. Secessionist Party rally, the group threatened to sue. Gov. Nikki Haley directed the Department of Administration to allow the event. Around 65 attended, along with several protesters. One person was arrested.

There is always a possibility that demonstrators will get belligerent. And when that happens, law enforcement officers should be on hand to make sure everyone is safe.

But denying people the right to assemble and speak out is not the answer. Careful scheduling and preparation are a better approach.