Chapel Hill asked to revise picketing rules

Staff WriterMay 9, 2008 

  • The board would be made up of town, university and community leaders and would have the town staff available as resources.

  • The current picketing ordinance, adopted in 1961, includes such rules as:

    * "Picketing may be conducted only on the sidewalks reserved for pedestrian movement and may not be conducted on the portion of a street used primarily for vehicular traffic."

    * "Not more than 10 pickets promoting the same objective shall be permitted to use one of the two sidewalks within a block of the town at any one time."

    * "Pickets may carry written or printed placards or signs not exceeding two (2) feet in width and two (2) feet in length promoting the objective for which the picketing is done; provided the words used are not defamatory in nature or would not tend to produce violence."

    To read the full ordinance, go to www.municode.com/resources/gateway.asp?sid=33&pid=19952 and search using the term "Picketing."

— Local civil rights groups have asked the Chapel Hill Town Council to update the town's picketing rules and form a civilian review board to monitor police conduct.

Members of the Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the North Carolina branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom said a board could provide a forum for citizens to voice concerns. The groups want an independent board that conducts its own investigations, not just reviews the Police Department's own investigations.

The Town Council referred the request to the staff for recommendations.

Tamara Tal, a UNC-Chapel Hill student, was arrested at a protest of tomato pickers' wages at the Burger King on Elliott Road in November. She was charged with failure to clear a public walkway, according to a police report. The charge was recently dismissed.

"When I was standing on a public sidewalk, we were approached by police with an unwarranted level of aggression," Tal told the Town Council. The protesters felt threatened by police, and officers on the scene refused to identify themselves or show their badges, she said.

"This is unacceptable," Tal said. "In a place like Chapel Hill, and in the rest of the country, our right to free speech needs to be protected and enforced."

Al McSurely, an attorney who is representing Tal, filed a court motion to dismiss the charge, arguing the section of the picketing ordinance she was charged with violating is unconstitutional.

McSurely also filed a complaint with the Police Department, and local activist Peggy Misch asked the town to review the incident.

Currently, when a resident wants to complain about police officers, he or she can call the Chapel Hill Police Department at 968-2760 or file a complaint in person, at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., said police spokesman Lt. Kevin Gunter.

The complaint is forwarded to Capt. Bob Overton, who is in charge of internal affairs. Then, police conduct an internal investigation, Gunter said. The complainant is contacted to discuss the incident as part of the investigation process. But the complainant is only told when the investigation is complete, not about its findings, he said.

A civilian review board would give residents an opportunity to address complaints against the police officers immediately, as well as improve police-community relations, Lewis said.

meiling.arounnarath@newsobserver.com or (919) 932-2004

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