Senate panel advances bill limiting Statehouse demonstration rights

Members of the crowd yell at law enforcement as they move in during a demonstration by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Pelham, N.C., on July 18 at the Statehouse in Columbia.

COLUMBIA – The Statehouse grounds — where laws are debated and hashed out — may soon become restricted or off limits to some groups wanting to practice freedom of assembly.

A Senate finance panel approved an amended bill that would create a demonstration permitting process where law enforcement agencies could give input on denying a permit if there is a “legitimate public safety threat or crowd control concern.” It could also limit the number of permits granted per day.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said his bill is a result of the conflict that erupted after Statehouse ground reservations were approved for a Ku Klux Klan rally and a group affiliated with the New Black Panther Party rally in July.

The dueling events, which came days after the Confederate battle flag was removed, overlapped by an hour. At least eight law enforcement agencies provided security for an estimated 2,000 people at its peak, and five protesters were arrested.

“This addresses the concerns of public safety and the First Amendment,” Peeler said. “It’s emotional at times, but at some time we need to have a common-sense discussion.”

Peeler’s amendment allows the State Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Public Safety to give input to the Department of Administration, which can deny permits on safety grounds. If law enforcement determines there is a conflict between multiple demonstrations, permits may not be issued.

“Law enforcement would have input, not veto power,” Peeler said.

Currently groups that wish to reserve space on the Statehouse grounds submit a request with the Department of Administration. The proposed bill requires permit applications be submitted at least 10 days before an event.

Barton Swaim, communications director of the S.C. Policy Council — a libertarian think tank — said that even with the looser amendment language rights are still limited.

“If they pass this, it isn’t going to stand,” Swaim said. “If you’re going to have a permitting process for Statehouse demonstrations that means some groups can be turned away by whoever issues the permits. That’s just not going to hold up on First Amendment grounds. It’s going to be litigated, and the Legislature’s going to lose.”

In December, law enforcement officials cancelled a S.C. Secessionist Party rally celebrating the 155th anniversary of South Carolina’s breakaway that formed the Confederate States of America. The group threatened to sue. Gov. Nikki Haley then directed the Department of Administration to allow the event to go forward. Organizers expected 300 people, but around 65 attended along with several protesters. One person was arrested.

The bill goes before the full Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.