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Jackson County NAACP Challenges Town Ordinance As Unconstitutional

Dan Kowal/Jackson County NAACP
The local group Indivisible-Common Ground WNC-Organizing for Action protested President Trump's executive order for a state of emergency in February.

 The Jackson County NAACP believes that a local law is a violation of  their constitutional rights so they met with Sylva town leaders to make their case.

Activists protested at the bottom of the courthouse steps in Sylva almost every Wednesday last year. Their most recent protest was against President Trump’s executive order for a state of emergency to deal with the crisis at the border - and to appropriate his requested $5 billion from Congress to build a wall.  

Betsy Swift is a member of Indivisible-Common Ground WNC-Organizing for Action.  She says between six and 60 people turned out every week for their Wednesday protests.


“It felt like the right thing to be doing to be able to respond to the news - that feels so bad all the time,” says Swift, who is also a member of the local NAACP.


The latest protest wasn’t just aimed at President Trump. The group was also testing the town of Sylva.


The Jackson County chapter of the NAACP recently met with the Sylva Town attorney and the chief of police Tammy Hooper about a town code which requires 7 day advance notice before a protest.


Local NAACP president Enrique Gomez says its important for people to be able to gather directly after news happens  instead of having to wait for a permit.


“In addition of it being part of our constitutional rights, I think it’s essential for a community to be able to have a venue of expression,” says Gomez.


Town attorney Eric Ridenour says that a town code would never trump the constitution. He explains that the code was added in 2017 after the violent protests in Charlottesville,Virginia as Sylva prepared for tourists coming to see the eclipse.   


“The constitution will always prevail any town ordinance as it does over everything. This just a request,” says Ridenour. He explained that everyone has the right to assembly, to protest and to free speech under the constitution.  


Indivisible-CommonGround now just calls ahead to make sure the police know they will be at the fountain at the bottom of the courthouse steps. Ridenour says he hopes that other groups would give them even more notice.


“If the Klu Klux Klan wants to show up and demonstrate and not tell anybody then they have the right under the constitution,” says Ridenour.


The town code stating that any group needs to give advance notice is still in effect. There are also restrictions on what protesters can bring such as wooden signs.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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