What you should know about hosting a peaceful protest in Huntsville

single-meta-cal June 5, 2020

As our country mourns the tragic death of George Floyd, many thousands of people have peacefully assembled to advocate for meaningful change in the U.S.

Civil protest is one of the most effective and powerful ways citizens can make a difference in their communities. For centuries, people have gathered to exercise their First Amendment rights and bring important issues to the local and national forefront.

Are you or your organization thinking about hosting a demonstration or other special event in Huntsville? Check out the guidance below.

First, what does the City’s ordinance say?

The City’s Organized Events Ordinance, which is contained in Chapter 23, Article VI of the City Code, administers the use of the City’s parks, sidewalks and streets for organized events. Basically, an organized event is a gathering of individuals for a common purpose. There are a wide variety of organized events, both small and large, that use City space. Some of these include:

  • Marathons / runs / races
  • Walks
  • Ceremonies / vigils
  • Block parties
  • Demonstrations / marches
  • Parades / festivals / celebrations
  • Family reunions
  • Observances
  • Concerts

The ordinance has provisions designed to accommodate the use of the public space for a wide variety of organized events. At the same time, the ordinance has provisions that, among other goals, coordinate multiple uses of limited space, preserve public facilities and improvements, protect public safety, ensure City resources are deployed efficiently and effectively, and address any secondary harms caused by the conduct of the event.

How does the City do this?

The ordinance starts by breaking down organized events into three basic categories – a minor event, a basic event and an enhanced event. These categories are based on the logistics of an event. The category that an event falls into, based on the criteria established in the ordinance, dictates whether or not a special event permit will be required, and how that application will be processed.

Those events that meet the criteria of a minor event, which essentially is an event limited in scope, do not need a special event permit to use the City’s parks, streets or sidewalks, for their event.  The organizer of the event may, however, want to obtain a permit to reserve the space for their event. The other two types of events – a basic event and an enhanced event – both require a special event permit.

What is a special event?

A special event is an organized event for which a special event permit is issued – either because one is required, in the case of a basic event or an enhanced event, or because one is allowed, in the case of a minor event where the organizer simply wants to reserve the public space for the event.

What’s the process for getting a special event permit?

The first step in the process is submitting an application for a permit. An application and related instructions for a special event permit are available on the City’s website.

Keep in mind that the special event permit process includes application requirements and deadlines. The City processes applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

Once the City receives an application, it is processed in accordance with the provisions of the ordinance. An application may be denied based on stated grounds for denial, subject to the right to appeal the denial.

The Huntsville Police Department’s Special Operations office generally administers the ordinance and handles applications for special event permits. Staff are available during regular office hours to answer questions concerning organized events and special event permitting.

Their contact information is below:

  • Address – 2320 1st St., Huntsville
  • Phone – 256-427-7281

When does a protest or special event become a problem?

The answer is, “It depends.” There are such a wide variety of organized events with unique logistical requirements, including those that need or want to close a street or sidewalk, or several streets or sidewalks. The ordinance has been drafted and is administered in such a way that events are accommodated while secondary harms are addressed.

The ordinance defines secondary harm as follows:

  • Secondary harm refers to the danger, damage, injury, or unreasonable inconvenience, interference, demand, or annoyance, to or on adjacent or nearby uses, the general public, public property, the use of public space, other organized events, city resources, or public safety, resulting or likely to result from event conduct.

What other ordinances come into play?

For an organized event that does not have a permit, the noise ordinance does come into play. Where a special event permit is issued, the noise ordinance does not apply, but conditions may be attached to the event to address noise issues.

In addition, an event may be subject to fire and other technical codes of the City, as well as ordinances such as business licensing. These would be addressed through the special event permitting process.

An article in Chapter 17 of the City Code addresses offenses against public peace and order. State law may also regulate conduct. Huntsville Police can discuss the application of these laws and how they are enforced on a case-by-case basis.

How does the ordinance address event conduct?

Another aspect of the ordinance, besides the permitting process, are those provisions that address how an organized event is conducted, including the conduct of those participating.

It starts with the basic requirements that, except for minor events, an organized event must be properly permitted, and then must comply with the conditions of its permit. In addition, there are general conditions applicable to all organized events, which are designed, in part, to protect public safety and convenience.

Failure to comply with the provisions of the ordinance, including applicable conditions, is subject to the same enforcement and prosecution as are violations of other City ordinances. In addition, a permit may be revoked or an organized event terminated in appropriate cases, including where there is a breach of the peace or a violation of applicable law, including the ordinance.

What else should you should know?

The ordinance not only addresses the conduct of an event and its participants, but also the conduct on non-participants who unreasonably interfere with an event. This conduct is also subject to the same enforcement and prosecution as are other City ordinance violations.

In addition to the City’s laws that may govern the conduct of the participants and non-participants of an event, there are also state laws that could apply, which subject a person to enforcement and prosecution of the state law.

For more information on special events, click here.