Pa. county's new law bans protests during terror warnings
By The Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. County leaders have approved an ordinance that allows them to prohibit groups deemed dangerous from gathering on county property if a U.S. Office of Homeland Security terror-attack warning requires emergency personnel to remain on alert.
The unanimous vote yesterday by York County's three commissioners was designed to bolster last month's refusal to allow white-supremacist groups to gather in county parks and on the courthouse steps.
The scheduled April 20 gathering, which would be the second by white supremacists this year in York, was planned to celebrate Adolf Hitler's 113th birthday and protest the prosecution of nine white men for the 1969 murder of a black woman during race riots in York.
The commissioners contend that police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel could be needed to respond to a terrorist attack and the public's right to safety takes priority over a group's right to demonstrate.
"We wish we weren't in this position," said county Solicitor David Craun, whose office helped write the ordinance, in a telephone interview after the vote, "but you have to deal with what you're presented."
The ordinance toughens the county's code that says that during peacetime, the county can reject applications to gather by groups that it proves "beyond a reasonable doubt" present a "clear and present danger to public safety and welfare."
The ordinance would take effect if the U.S. Office of Homeland Security issued a color-coded terrorist-attack warning of a significant risk (yellow) or higher.
In that case, groups deemed "likely" to endanger public safety and welfare would not be allowed to meet on York County property.
A group would be considered dangerous if its prior meetings had become violent, if members attending the rally were likely to possess weapons or drugs, or if leaders of the organization had criminal records, among other characteristics.
Of particular concern to York officials was a "call to arms" issued last month by an Aryan Nations representative, Shaun Winkler, asking group members with a Pennsylvania concealed weapons license to come armed.
Officials said the ordinance targeted groups that threaten violence during a gathering, not groups whose message could spark violence.
Winkler said yesterday that he had made the call to arms because he believed police would not be there to protect his members from protesters. He has since rescinded it.
In addition, his group remains intent on gathering in the streets around the courthouse on April 20.
"We have yet to cancel a rally and we plan not to cancel this one," said Winkler, a York native who now lives in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where his wing of the Aryan Nations is based.
Constitutional-law specialists say threats of terrorism do not relieve the county of an obligation to protect free speech and the right to gather.
Craun disagreed, saying that the county was acting to protect its residents. "We believe that we are on solid constitutional ground," he said.
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