A proposed ordinance that would have banned picketing at individual houses is not likely to advance, but city officials said they are committed to ensuring public safety amid protests over the state of Ohio's stay-safe directive related to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Council members discussed an ordinance related to protests at a May 6 special meeting in response to what has taken place at the south Bexley residence of Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health.
"Targeting a residence for protest, regardless of the profile of that resident, is an invasion of privacy and a defilement of private enjoyment that we all have in our home," Mayor Ben Kessler said. "Nonetheless, the Constitution of our country provides broad protections for speech, and there's a deep history of case law and Supreme Court decisions that underlie the limits to which we can shield our residential neighborhoods from peaceful demonstrations."
During the special meeting, Kessler, council members, Bexley police Chief Larry Rinehart, city attorney Marc Fishel, city auditor Bill Harvey and Capital University law professor Dan Kobil discussed a proposed ordinance that Kessler said was designed to keep neighborhoods safe while allowing protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech.
Kessler, Fishel and council president Lori Ann Feibel attended the meeting in person at Bexley City Hall council chambers, while the others participated remotely via Zoom.
During the south Bexley protests, Rinehart said, Bexley police have mainly acted in a support role to assist Ohio State Highway Patrol officers in maintaining law and order. He said Bexley police will, however, respond to direct and immediate threats to public safety.
"It's not impossible that you won't see a Bexley (police) car there, but that's not our mission," Rinehart said. "We're just assisting in any way we can."
"I want to reassure our public that we are on-site and prepared to act if any threat should become one that is actionable," Kessler said.
The ordinance as proposed said that "no person shall engage in focused picketing solely in front of, in the rear of, or the side of the residence, home or dwelling of any individual in the city of Bexley" and that doing so would result in being charged with a minor misdemeanor, but didn't specify any fines, jail time or other penalties.
The ordinance appeared on the May 6 special meeting agenda as a "concept" and not an official piece of legislation.
Fishel and Monique Lampke, an attorney and chairwoman of council's strategic and judiciary committee, said they drafted the proposed ordinance to strike a balance between promoting public safety and protecting First Amendment rights.
"What this could mean, if passed," Fishel said, "is that picketers could march up and down the sidewalk in front of several houses, not just one particular house."
"If we do, in fact, pass an ordinance, we need it to pass constitutional muster," Lampke said. "We want to do it the right way, we want to do it the smart way."
Other council members said they didn't support moving forward with the ordinance because it could have the reverse effect of causing protesters to become more agitated if they believe their First Amendment rights are being violated.
"I definitely believe that citizens should not be protesting in front of a citizen's house," council member Troy Markham said.
He said he would have difficulty supporting the proposed ordinance, however, because of "the possibility of a court challenge, creating an environment that actually incites more of this, the challenges of enforcing it."
Feibel said the consensus of council members is the city should not move forward with the proposed ordinance and added she did not anticipate it would be formally introduced for consideration at a regular council meeting in the near future.
Going forward, Rinehart said Bexley police may be able to notify south Bexley residents when a protest is likely to happen so they could prepare for the disruption. Rinehart and Kessler said they would suggest south Bexley neighbors form a block-watch group, if one doesn't exist already, and help residents in the area monitor threats to public safety and report them to police.
"We're going to keep brainstorming ways to mitigate any negative impacts on the community while respecting First Amendment rights," Kessler said.