A decision about banning protests outside Orange County schools and playgrounds was deferred Monday night after members of the public asked county leaders to reconsider the proposed rules.
Commissioner Jean Hamilton, who called for the discussion last year, recommended the county form a task force. The goal is to keep students and staff safe while protecting the public’s First Amendment right to free speech, she said.
“I think we failed to go about this in a way that didn’t create more questions and things that we cannot answer,” Hamilton said. “We just need to step back and see how we can find a way to protect students without abridging rights and make sure we have all the information on unintended consequences.”
Commissioners Vice Chair Jamezetta Bedford cast the lone vote against tabling the topic, but then joined the board in a unanimous 7-0 vote to form a task force.
The decision was a turnaround from June, when the board debated how far protesters would have to stand from a school or a playground where children are present. The rules also would have limited who can protest on private property next to schools.
On Monday, Orange County Schools Superintendent Monique Felder and Patrick Abele, deputy superintendent of operations, suggested a different approach that would prohibit people from gathering on sidewalks and roadsides adjacent to the schools.
The rules would only be enforced when students are in class or on campus for athletic and extracurricular activities.
The rules would not apply to:
▪ Students protesting at a school they attend
▪ Attendance or behavior at government meetings
▪ State and federal land, or property considered a traditional public square, such as the courthouse lawn in Hillsborough
▪ Schools or parks in Chapel Hill, Carrboro or Hillsborough unless adopted by the towns’ elected bodies. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials previously suggested a 500-foot protest buffer at school driveways and no picketing on campus.
Violators could be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and fined $100.
Proud Boys, school board concerns
The commissioners have discussed public safety concerns for about a year, following incidents at Orange County Schools board meetings and campuses, including two involving the right-wing Proud Boys group.
The county cannot restrict specific groups or ideas, but it can regulate public behavior, and where and when protests are held. Many of the roughly two dozen people who spoke Monday, however, saw the rules as a way for the school board to infringe on their rights.
Kathy Arab and Gretchen Schmid, chair of the Orange County chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, cited concerns about a former school board chair who they said led efforts to suppress opposing viewpoints, changing agendas at the last minute, limiting the number of people who could meet in person, and hiring off-duty law enforcement to monitor and escort public speakers.
In a video posted this year to YouTube, the former chair followed Schmid, filming her as she handed out business cards to parents in a school pickup line. The cards directed parents to a website for OCS Truth — now Orange County Citizens for Integrity through Engagement — a group concerned about parental rights, controversial school materials, and student and staff outcomes.
“This is an embarrassing shame on the reputation of the government in this community,” Arab said. “This pattern of our government attempting to silence the voice of citizens who reasonably disagree with policies undermines liberty for all citizens. This picketing ordinance is a perpetuation of that pattern.”
Carol Kunkel, who attended an October 2021 protest outside an Orange High School football game, noted that although Proud Boys also attended, students organized the event to protest the district’s COVID-19 mask requirements and spectator limits. The students wanted to hold the protest on campus but were denied, she said, noting there were no significant disruptions, arrests or violence.
But words can cause harm, said Heather Redding, an anti-racist organizer, who also urged the board to reconsider the proposed rules.
“As you are well aware, school board meetings have become battlegrounds for right-leaning groups like Moms for Liberty, Education First Alliance and the New Group of Patriots to wage war on books, transgender students, teachers who believe in diversity and inclusion, and progressive public school curriculum,” Redding said.
“While members of these bigoted groups have the right to spew their propaganda during public comment at school board meetings, your proposed regulation would prevent the community from countering those messages of hate and bigotry with peaceful demonstrations of inclusivity.”