The ACLU of Delaware is urging the Wilmington City Council to vote against a proposed ordinance. (Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

ACLU protests Wilm council ordinance limiting protests

Jarek RutzHeadlines, Government

The ACLU of Delaware is urging the Wilmington City Council to vote against a proposed ordinance. (Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

The ACLU of Delaware is urging the Wilmington City Council to vote against a proposed ordinance. (Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

This article has been updated, with new comments from additional sources and new information.

The ACLU of Delaware urging the Wilmington City Council to vote ‘no’ on an ordinance it claims would curtail free speech resulted in the ordinance being held.

Proposed Ordinance 24-036, sponsored by Councilperson Nathan Field, would make it unlawful for a “noise disturbance” that is focused on a residence at any time.

It was supposed to be brought up Thursday night but will not be.

“In response to the ongoing discussions by many residents, Council Members Chris Johnson (7th District), Vincent M. White (1st District), Shané Darby (2nd District), Zanthia Oliver (3rd District), Michelle Harlee (4th District), Bregetta A. Fields (5th District), and Yolanda McCoy (6th District) applaud the decision by the sponsor to hold Ordinance 24-036, an ordinance to amend Chapter 11 of the City Code to prohibit noise disturbances targeting a particular residence” a news release from the Council said Wednesday.

Johnson, speaking on behalf of the group, said they believe holding the ordinance will allow time for more in-depth consideration.,

“Our goal is to ensure that any legislation we pass is both fair and effective,” he said, “balancing the needs of all our residents along with protecting the community’s invaluable First Amendment Rights.”

Martin Lessner, an attorney in Wilmington and a long-time ACLU member, disagreed with the organization’s position.

He is not an employee of the ACLU nor is speaking on behalf of the ACLU. He sent the organization a letter explaining that the proposed ordinance is indeed constitutional and said that it made a mistake by sending its letter to the city council.

“If people were broadcasting a message targeted at individuals because of their religion or their political views, that would clearly be impermissible, and that is what this is aimed at,” he said Wednesday.

He wants the ACLU to explain to all city council members that the proposed ordinance is constitutional.

“I don’t have the right to pull out a loudspeaker in front of your house and say whatever religion you are, ‘get out’.” he said. “I don’t have a right to pull up a loudspeaker and say whatever race you are, ‘get out’, and I don’t have a right to target you because I know that you are a certain religion.”

There’s a concept of free speech, he said, called “time, place and manner.” Time restrictions dictate when expression of free speech can occur, place restrictions dictate where expression of free speech can occur and manner restrictions dictate how expression of free speech can occur.

According to the University of Louisville, the burden of such regulations is still fairly high, requiring the government to show that their restrictions on speech are:

  1. Content neutral (that the government does not outlaw content specific viewpoints)
  2. Narrowly tailored to serve a governmental interest (i.e., cannot be overly broad to regulate more than what is necessary to achieve government interest like, for example, public safety)
  3. Ample alternative means to express ideas

The ACLU stated in a letter posted to its website that “this effectively placing undue limits on public assembly activities or protests.”

“Free speech and the right to protest is the pillar of our democracy and is critical to empowering communities,” the nonprofit stated. “Protests allow people to express their opinions and grievances and often give voice to minority or underrepresented groups who may not have other means to express their views.”

The ordinance was originally proposed in the city council’s Public Safety Committee on June 10.

There were many public commentors, both those saying it infringes their free speech, and those upset with the noise.

The conversation has been largely charged by the countless protests that have resulted from the Gaza-Israeli war.

A few community members that gave public comment said “free Palestine” and called the situation a genocide, as did  Councilwoman Shané Darby, District 2, in the June 10 hearing.

“Instead of trying to put regulations and laws… instead of you putting in a law to try to regulate what [protesters are] doing, why don’t you address Senator Coons to stop funding genocide?” Darby asked Field.

Field was very clear that “this is an issue of noise, it is not a restriction on the right to protest.”

“It is simply balancing the right to protest with the rights of homeowners, based on a number of cases that have been argued before the Supreme Court,” he said.

According to the ACLU, this ordinance would further suppress those voices and significantly limit the people’s power to speak directly to those responsible for impacting their lives.

The city council’s meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and the public comment portion is before any ordinances are considered. Attend it at Louis L. Redding City/County Building at 800 North French Street or watch the livestream here.

“Protest helps expose the behaviors of the government and hold people and institutions accountable,” the ACLU stated. “Placing limits on when, where or how people may protest further dampens people’s will to organize and engage in protected political speech.”

This inhibits progress that comes by bringing attention to issues that may otherwise be overlooked, the group stated.

The ACLU stated that while placing limits on protest undoubtedly appeals to elected officials’ interests in avoiding criticism, curtailing peoples’ ability to express their views and engage in protest – even if annoying, offensive, or seemingly inconvenient – it makes democracy weaker. 

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