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.
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.
“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.”