County mulls new rules for free speech

After thousands gathered on Catawba County ground to protest a Maiden pastor, county officials are fine tuning the rules for “free speech assembly.”

In the wake of anti-gay comments delivered by Providence Road Baptist Church Pastor Charles Worley, Catawba Valley Citizens Against Hate assembled a protest rally on the lawn of the  Catawba County Justice Center. That rally was almost stopped before it started due to county rules that required 14-days advanced notice for any sort of protest on county grounds.

“The ordinance was originally written in the '90s and the focus was primarily on people wanting to use meeting rooms or grounds for activities,” said Catawba County attorney Debra Bechtel. “There was no contemplation of pure expression of free speech.”

Bechtel said the original ordinance worked well for years, but that Catawba Valley Citizens Against Hate' protest plans brought “the first time a group came forward and wanted to assemble for the purposes of expressing free speech.”

At first the county kept to its rules, requiring the 14-day notice in the original ordinance. However, it eventually allowed the protest to proceed.

“Cases subsequent to the original ordinance at the Supreme Court level speak to issues of free speech,” she said. “We realized the ordinance needed updating.”

To read more of this story, pick up the weekend print edition of Catawba County's community newspaper, The Observer News Enterprise, at newsstands throughout the county.