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Have political demonstrations become a threat to downtown business?

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Well, there is this – Town Attorney Doug Napier points out of legal dangers of potential suppression of free political speech on public property. However, were business operations actually being interfered with, could that be another story? Photos/Roger Bianchini

Could an initiative brought forward by local business forum representatives at a September 4 work session lead the Front Royal Town Council into a First Amendment battle over freedom of speech?

Discussion introduced by Town Manager Joe Waltz indicated concerns by some downtown business people that ongoing political demonstrations are jeopardizing their, and possibly other, business interests in Historic Downtown Front Royal.

The discussion of “Political Demonstrations” as part of a “Gazebo Discussion” was part of a wide-ranging exploration of issues surrounding events, parking and other variables impacting Front Royal’s central downtown business district.  Three downtown businesswomen – Ann Arenas (Gourmet Delights: Gifts & Framing, 202 E. Main St.), Kelly Walker (the Studio, 105 E. Main St.) and Jean Plaugher (Jean’s Jewelers, 407 E. Main St.) were interested observers at the council work session, where the idea that the demonstrations are scaring potential downtown business customers away was presented by town staff.

No detail of any financial impact on downtown businesses was presented at the September 4, 2018 work session.

Three downtown businesswomen, front left, were interested spectators to the September 4 discussion.

The demonstrations in question have occurred for one hour a week, on Wednesdays, beginning at either noon or 5 p.m. for 18 months now.  They were launched on March 8, 2017, by Len Sherp’s Vigil for Democracy expression of concern over Trump and his administration’s agenda.  Those concerns have generally been expressed by topical signage reflecting recent events, Trump statements, policy decisions or lingering legal questions.

Several weeks later, Main Street Pawn proprietor and Trump supporter Ralph Waller and nephew Michael appeared on the town bench in front of their Main Street Pawn Shop with a Trump-Pence campaign sign in silent opposition to the vigil.

Gradually over the next 17 months, the Wallers were joined by various other Trump supporters, eventually leading to occasionally more confrontational and eventually amplified verbal hostilities being expressed across Chester Street.  However, dialogue seeking common ground, particularly between the Wallers and vigil participants, has also been a periodic bright aspect of the dueling demonstrations.

Addressing the request the demonstrations be stopped or moved, Town Attorney Doug Napier traced the First Amendment issue at stake, and urged caution in any effort to suppress the right of free political speech in permitted public spaces.  In fact, any perception that such an effort was being undertaken to suppress a certain political opinion would run the town government into outright legal jeopardy on U.S. Constitutional grounds, Napier pointed out.

Hey you – some pro-Trump demonstrators have recently amplified their challenges of the other side of the local political divide.

“It would have to serve a compelling government interest to enforce a time, place and manner of expression,” Napier told the council and the mayor, noting that it was not allowed to permit one side of any position to be expressed and not the other.

At several points in the conversation, the term “slippery slope” was voiced by the town attorney – and several councilmen.

“I don’t have much appetite for this,” John Connolly told his colleagues of any municipal attempt to shut down or even move the dueling political demonstrations to another location.

“I agree,” Gary Gillespie said.  Gillespie pointed to town permitted faith-based activities, often amplified, utilizing the Gazebo area on a regular basis – “What if someone gets offended by that and complains,” he wondered.

“It’s an extremely slippery slope,” the town attorney replied.

It was noted the Town itself sponsors Gazebo activities involving movies, live music, and food vendors.  A concern that downtown businesses might cite similar interference in their operations or undue competition from those activities was voiced.

“It’s a very slippery slope,” council and the mayor were reminded.

However, Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt said he was willing to talk with organizers of the various demonstrations in an effort to get them to voluntarily move or change their demonstration patterns.  Tewalt, who admitted to having no knowledge of the dynamics of the demonstrations, offered, “You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t try.”

Anti-Trump demonstrators have developed a strategy of non-confrontation, issue-based signage to transmit their concerns.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Rea Howarth

    September 7, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    I’m glad to see that the Town Council is not willing to slide down the “slippery slope” regarding free speech at the Gazebo, which serves as the town’s “green.” The hour-long political demonstrations have provided an important outlet for local citizens to voice their concerns about the state of the nation.

  2. Sarah

    September 7, 2018 at 7:12 am

    I think it’s ridiculous the way people in this town complain over basic rights. Freedom of speech isn’t pretty , but it certainly should not be infringed upon because a couple of local places don’t agree with protesting. Get over yourselves. Unfortunately, some businesses don’t do well because they aren’t managed well, and look at Front Royal…mostly sub par restraunts with crappy Sysco food, over priced and shady car dealerships and corporate chain markets and restraunts who can’t keep things stocked properly and is also poorly managed. No body gets excited over any of that. Gazebo is public, people have the right to demonstrate and it isn’t effecting your business! But now I know who is complaining against free speech, I won’t be going to those businesses either.

    • ella wolfe

      September 8, 2018 at 2:15 am

      I hadn’t noticed any problems until those who are in front of the pawn shop started encouraging with signs, bull horns and words for their followers to honk and shout and circle the block again and again making as much noise as possible!

  3. James

    September 7, 2018 at 5:30 am

    Whereas I do not align on either side, I have observed that many times the Trump side has been somewhat hostile and loud in their demonstrations.

    Racial slurs, bullhorn taunting, requesting supporters to beep 3 times for support.

    There were 2 instances that happened that I could understand in addition to the above, which would be upsetting to downtown merchants.

    The first was when the scheduled memorial for the high school shooting in Florida. As the names of the murdered students were read off, members of Trump side showed up in force with unloaded AK’s outside the gazebo area and taunted the group reading the names.

    The second event was when a Trump group took over the gazebo and was asked to leave by the local police dept during the time reserved by the Vigil side.

    The reason local businesses are upset and why it’s so sad for our community is because it reflects on the character of our community. The fact that local people on What’s up Front Royal instigated and encouraged people to bring out their guns to the memorial to show a force might have a negative effect on people coming to our town since we do depend on tourism.

    It’s only a matter of time that our community will again hit the national news press with these actions just like the Naughty Girls Donut. Protesting of movies playing at our local movie theater, or protesting Gypsys and outdated municipal languages.

    The only thing we need now is more of our elected government officials to get caught doing “good old boy” stuff.

    I think that our community will continue to be a place that people will run from and not come to.

    • Sarah

      September 8, 2018 at 9:07 am

      Well stated! Thank you for bringing up that ridiculous backwards thinking good ol boy network! That, is the gunk holding up progress in this town!

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