Centre officials mull security guidelines for demonstrations

BELLEFONTE — In the coming weeks, the Centre County Board of Commissioners will be examining a proposed ordinance that would put in place guidelines for security and public events that take place on county property.

During their Tuesday, Jan. 16 meeting, the commissioners were scheduled to vote on the ordinance but after receiving many comments and letters from the public, they have decided it is best to examine the ordinance further.

The ordinance is meant to officially organize protocols already in place, with some new additions, such as the creation of a county security committee.

“We want to make sure that if there are large events, demonstrations, whatever you would call them, here on county property, that they’re done safely,” Commissioner Mike Pipe said. “We want to allow our chief of security, our sheriff, to be able to help assist that and make sure that we have a safe demonstration.”

A few members of the public came to speak out against the proposed ordinance.

One individual against the ordinance is Hobson McKown, of Ferguson Township, who came forward to give testimony on his own experience with searches and seizures on county property.

Back in August 2016, McKown was charged with defiant criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct upon attempting to enter the Centre County Courthouse. The charges were preceded by a felony weapons charge in 2008, when he carried a concealed gun into a district judge’s office, according to news reports. McKown said that his firearms were seized and never returned.

“The entire ordinance is unconstitutional, both with the speech stuff and the search and seizure of weapons stuff, and you need to be clear on that now,” he said. “There’s no way to fix it.”

Another member of the public who spoke out against the proposed ordinance was Jared DeLoof, of State College.

DeLoof said he regularly coordinates demonstrations in the county over a variety of issues.

“I too feel that the original ordinance as it stands is burdensome, unnecessary, and seemingly arbitrary,” he said.

Nick Pressley, of State College, a representative from ACLU of Pennsylvania, also spoke up about his and his organization’s feelings on the ordinance.

According to a letter from the ACLU, the proposed restrictions on activities taking place on public property violates First Amendment law. Some changes were made on Jan. 8, changes that removed long periods of advance notice to hold public demonstration and permit requirements. He said there are still very limited requirements imposed on where free speech demonstrations can take place.

“We do not believe that the Jan. 8 version contains any constitutionally objectionable provisions,” Pressley said. “However, it must be noted that if you intend to restore any of the recently deleted provisions, then we would challenge you upon receiving a complaint of this application.”

Commissioner Steve Dershem said that there are two big issues, security and events, and that the commissioners need to ensure that they are secure in both of those issues in how the ordinance is written.

“I think there needs to be a lot of conversation about this. I get the civil liberties end of it, and I completely understand and accept that and expect that we would be well within the bounds of a reason about all that.”

According to the proposed ordinance, county property is defined as being “property under the control of the County to which the general public has access.” County property includes: the Centre County Courthouse, Willowbank Building, Centre County Correctional Facility, and any other building that is owned or leased by the county. Demonstrations, or public activities, for the purpose of the ordinance, include a public assembly, meeting or gathering, rally or protest, political rally or event, speechmaking, marching, vigils or religious services, and other forms of similar conduct.

Under the security procedures section of the ordinance, security for all county property will be coordinated by the county sheriff, or chief of security, along with input from the county security committee, for several activities. The security committee will be co-chaired by the county administrator and the county sheriff, except for when the sheriff has designated the role of chief of security to another individual, who will then serve as co-chair. Other county elected officials and personnel will serve on the committee, along with community members who have security expertise, as designated by the county commissioners.

According to the ordinance, the security procedures include searches of individuals, packages, and containers upon entrance of county property, security cameras and equipment located near county property entries, and monitoring from time to time of these cameras on behalf of the sheriff or his designee.

In the ordinance, demonstration requirements must meet a set of requirements.

One such requirement establishes three set locations demonstrations or events must take place at the county courthouse, unless another location is previously determined by the chief of security: the sidewalk in front of the statue that is located along South Allegheny Street; the sidewalk located on the north side of East High Street that runs along the courtyard area, between South Allegheny Street and the paved area in front of the courthouse steps; and the sidewalk on the south side of East High Street that runs along the courtyard area, between South Allegheny Street and the paved area in front of the courthouse steps.

Individuals taking part in such public demonstrations or events also are not allowed to block the view of traffic on East High Street or South Allegheny Street.

At the Willowbank Building, demonstrations or events must take place in two designated locations, unless determined otherwise by the chief of security, according to the ordinance. One of which is the sidewalk and grass area along the northeast side of Holmes Street between the top or side parking lot and middle parking lot. The other designated location is the sidewalk and grass area along the southeast side of Willowbank Street and the corner of Holmes Street, which is southwest of the bottom parking lot. Demonstrators are asked to not block the view of drivers in the parking lots or on Willowbank and Holmes streets.

In regard to demonstrations that take place at the prison or on other county property, those will take place in areas that are designated by the chief of security.

For violations of the ordinance, individuals upon conviction will be required to pay $600 per day of violation, along with prosecution costs, or they will be imprisoned for no more than 10 days, or they may be required to do both.

The full proposed ordinance, Ordinance 1 of 2018, can be found online at centrecountypa.gov and at the Willowbank Building, located at 420 Holmes St. in Bellefonte.

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