On October 3, dozens of community members engaged the Board of County Commissioners in an action that effectively took the proposed picketing ordinance off the table in our county. I feel confident in saying that the community blocked this proposal from becoming law, for good. 

Orange County Board of Commissioners - October 3, 2022

Here's what happened:

Before I go into detail, I want to thank the dozens of people involved in this effort. From sending emails to sharing on Facebook, to coming to the meeting and commenting in front of the Commissioners... everything that was done took time, effort, and courage.

The energy and resolve in the room surpassed the substantial showing made by our community in June. From the offset of the meeting, up until the last moments, the Board of Commissioners, their attorney, and the Superintendents were doing everything they could to reduce, walk back, and escape the fallout from this disaster of a proposal. 

I'm especially happy to report that common ground among political adversaries was found during this meeting. It's the first time, in the years I've been paying attention to local politics, that I've seen two sides come together to support a common cause. It was nothing short of remarkable. 

All in all, the action was a success for the community. We can enjoy the paramount victory of preserving our Constitutional rights. Further, we were able to avoid a deluge of toxic effects that would only compound the division and insecurity that our community is already struggling with.

In the end, I think most of the Commissioners could see that the ordinance was woefully misguided. Some admitted as much. 

The motion to stop this ordinance passed 6 to 1, with Commissioner Bedford being the only dissenter.  

Following are more details about how this meeting unfolded.


Attorney Roberts: "you can't yell fire in a crowded theatre"

I'm trying to refrain from getting too personal about County Attorney Roberts. But he doesn't make it easy. His apparent indifference to the most rudimentary, literal interpretation of the First Amendment is repugnant. My inclination was to give him the benefit of the doubt. That is until he pulled the "you can't yell fire in a crowded theatre" justification for obliterating freedom of speech.

You've received a lot of emails about how "unconstitutional" a restriction on free speech is. And what I've tried to clarify, at several meetings, is that every right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights is subject to reasonable restriction. Every one. Including free speech. The one everybody's familiar with is "you can't go into a crowded building and yell fire".

Riveting legal analysis by J. Roberts, Orange County Attorney

At this meeting, he introduced the ordinance to the Commissioners with two recommendations:

  • Reduce the location restriction to within 50 feet of school entrances (down from 1000 feet of any school property). 
  • Add wording that would allow parents to come to their child's school if they have an appointment.

You read it right: As a parent, you'd be legally allowed to visit your child's school if you have an appointment. Otherwise, you're a trespasser. 

If you do go forward with the ordinance, I recommend that you insert language that the ordinance doesn't apply to parents who have or make appointments with teachers or school staff.

Reassurance by J. Roberts, Orange County Attorney that parents can still go to their child's school as long as they have an appointment.

I was a little surprised at Attorney Robert's suggestion to reduce the ordinance to 50 feet. This was a dramatic change from the original proposal. Little did I know that this was just a foreshadowing of the way all parties involved were about to try and water down the ordinance as much as possible to try and come away with a "win". 


District Leaders Showcase their Creativity

If I had to guess, I would bet that Superintendent Felder was on an errand from her allies in the School Board to try and salvage this situation. She spent a few minutes justifying the need for this ordinance (spoiler: the community fully discredited every aspect of her case supporting the ordinance). Then, Deputy Superintendent Abele gave what could only be described as a bewildering proposal for how to change the ordinance to only affect right-of-ways adjacent to schools. He showed satellite images with colored lines and rectangles. He then went on to explain that the reasoning for the 1,000 feet buffer was that, citizens supporting or protesting causes and issues, are about the same thing as drug dealers and sex offenders.

We know our original request of 1,000 feet was discussed and that request was in alignment with Federal regulations which prohibit dispensing, possessing, distributing, or selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school zone, under the Drug-free School Zone legislation. And that registered sex offenders are not allowed knowingly to reside or live within 1,000 feet of a school or a childcare center.

Deputy Superintendent Abele

Multiple Commissioners described how they were perplexed by the presentation, and the Attorney expressed how he wasn't sure how he could write an ordinance that embodied what was being requested. 

I was just trying to understand what the request is... I can't get my head around this without really visualizing what you're talking about... this is not clear enough for me... what you're asking.

Commissioner Green expresses what everyone in the room is feeling.

Again, I was taken aback by how willing, and even anxious the Superintendents were to pare down the depth and breadth of the ordinance. It was clear: They were hoping to reduce it to the smallest possible "ask" that could still get them a win. I'm sure they knew the community would never swallow any version of the ordinance, but they were hoping the Commissioners couldn't turn down such a "reasonable" request. 

At one point, Mr. Abele explained that the reason they needed this ordinance is so that people could be arrested for gathering in the DOT right of way, which currently they cannot be arrested for because there isn't an ordinance. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Have individuals been cited, or any individuals been arrested or received citations for being in the area? I think the answer is "no, there haven't been individuals arrested." Because there wasn't an ordinance, people couldn't be cited. Because they were in the DOT right of way, and there was no ordinance prohibiting that. And so I do think putting the buffer in would accomplish the goal that we're looking for.

Deputy Superintendent Abele

This strategy ultimately backfired. Commissioner McKee called them out directly, pointing out how it made no sense that they were asking for a completely different ordinance than what was originally proposed, and alluding to what we all know as clear as day: The School Board's original intent was to quell CERTAIN speech. 

The thing that concerns me is that the original request and this request are nowhere similar. This request is essentially what we have now... I have a real issue trying to reconcile in my own mind, whether any other group from any other political bent or ideological bent, would have received the same response.

Commissioner McKee garners spontaneous applause for this observation.

Graciously, Commissioner Richards thanked the Superintendents for their "creativity" in trying to come up with a solution. 

Thank you both for being here and for being, what I think is creative, in trying to come up with something that meets the objective.

Commissioner Richards

Questions about the decidedly "creative" proposal could have gone on forever, but Chair Price mercifully cut to the chase and released Dr. Felder and Mr. Adele. I think they both knew, even before the first comment was spoken, that they had failed their mission to come away with some semblance of a win for OCS leadership. 

For some unknown reason, after they were finished, both Dr. Felder and Mr. Adele pretended to be statues for the rest of the meeting. 


Can we get out of this?

After the presentations by the superintendents, Commissioner Hamilton suggested tabling the ordinance and looking at other options. 

With this new information, and in thinking back to where it started, and to all the comments we have gotten... I'm thinking that I would like to table the ordinance... I think this issue is too important to everyone to not be a little bit more deliberative in the way we do it. I think we haven't done as good of a job as we could... There may be some other ways we can do this.

Commissioner Hamilton

The Commissioners debated how to proceed, with one possibility, suggested by Commissioner Bedford, being to skip public comments completely. Commissioner McKee suggested that it would be to the Board's advantage to "listen, and listen attentively, for as long as it takes."

The Board chose to proceed with public comments. 


Are there any opposed?

For the next 90 minutes, dozens of citizens approach the podium, one after the other, to unequivocally reject this ordinance. While the representation at this meeting skewed conservative, I can attest that the entire political spectrum was represented. 

Some were parents with children in our schools who (both parents and children) are first-hand witnesses of pertinent events and actions that led up to this ordinance. Some were grandparents and other seniors who are deeply concerned about freedom and discourse in our community. Some were not on the left or the right politically, but they understand the importance of the Bill of Rights and they are willing to stand up for what they believe in. And there was even representation from Progressives who stated that, while they don't agree with many of the people in the room, they deeply value the right to protest and demonstrate. 

The messages covered every imaginable rebuttal to the proposed ordinance. A clear violation of our constitutional rights was top of mind for most people. Many revealed facts and testimony that, in their totality, thoroughly discredited the Superintendent's presentation. Others spoke about the financial impacts that would affect the County and local law enforcement agencies. Citizens were deeply concerned about the way this ordinance would divide parents and children as separate classes, or increase tension between neighbors in our community. The outpouring of contempt for this ordinance seemed to have no limit.

In future posts, I may outline specific comments and arguments made by individuals. But for now, I want to focus on this rare moment of unity of our community. 

Admittedly, this is a lowest-common-denominator example of unity imaginable. But I can attest that at least one little scrap of common ground was found. 

One speaker, Heather Redding, is active in our community as what I would call an "extreme" Progressive. To her, I am known as a "bigot". I know this because she has called me a bigot to my face. While it hasn't bothered me at all to be known as a bigot by her, I'll admit that her treating me this way has made it very easy for me to not take her seriously as a person. 

However, at this meeting, my mind and heart were changed when I witnessed Ms. Redding have the courage and character to stand in a room full of her political adversaries and join them to petition their government for the same rights. 

By prohibiting any form of picketing or protest on school property, this proposed ordinance would, in effect, not just stop hateful groups from assembling, but also prohibit groups from gathering with peaceful messages of inclusivity, diversity, and other displays of support to students, faculty, and staff... Today I was reminded by an esteemed civil rights activist that the right to express oneself and protest in the town square is foundational to our nation's stability... I don't have a proposed solution, but I hope that you will go back to the drawing board to work with the School Board and the community, and not pass this resolution tonight.

Heather Redding - Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action

I'm not suggesting it means much. But it shows that somewhere at the very core, I have something in common with Ms. Redding. She definitely didn't put politics aside in her comment. And I'm confident I'll still be known as the town bigot going forward. But I gained some empathy and respect for her that I didn't have before, which I think can help me better understand many in our community who I don't see eye to eye with.  

I'm sincerely grateful, and impressed, that Ms. Redding showed up and stood up for what she believes in. 

What happens now?

It's been a challenge to learn how the Board of Commissioners and the School Board work. As far as I can tell, there is an unwritten rule at every level of elected government that says

No matter what: never, ever even dream of admitting you may have possibly made a mistake.

There is no Board of Commissioners procedure to "kill" an initiative. You can only officially "table" it or "defer consideration". 

I'm okay with that. 

I've had a glimpse of the brutality involved with running for a local office and serving as an elected official. I can accept that local officials have earned the right to be a little pompous.

In my estimation, this ordinance is dead. I think much of the will to push it died after the last School Board election. I think it's been somewhat of a nightmare for the Commissioners. I'm sure that the County Attorney wants to forget it ever existed. Superintendent Felder would probably rather walk across a bed of hot coals than present support for the ordinance again at a community meeting.

The Commissioners decided to form a task force and ensured the citizens at the meeting that the community would be represented and able to participate in that effort. I think we all know what "form a task force" means. Which helps me not worry about this. 

What happens now? We stay vigilant.

This ordinance is dead, but the type of thinking and entitlement that enabled it to bubble up into our community is still out there. I have no doubt, that everyone who got involved to stop it, did absolutely the right thing. 

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the United States was filled with paranoia about communism's spread. Fear touched nearly every part of the country, oftentimes resulting in neighbors turning against neighbors. 

On August 8, 1950, President Harry S. Truman warned congress:

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear. We must, therefore, be on our guard against extremists who urge us to adopt police state measures. Such persons advocate breaking down the guarantees of the Bill of Rights in order to get at the communists. They forget that if the Bill of Rights were to be broken down, all groups, even the most conservative, would be in danger from the arbitrary power of government.

Today, instead of focusing on communism, our community is worried about other harms that can hurt our children, our families, and our future. It's this focus that has led, somewhat stunningly, to Orange County finding unity in two things:

First, we all want to protect our children from harm (even if we might not agree on what is harmful).

Second, despite our differences, we agree that the imperative we have to protect our children cannot be accomplished at the expense of compromising the underpinning of hope for our children's future, which is liberty.