BATH — A new rule requiring a permit for gatherings of 100 or more people on Bath city property has raised a red flag for some First Amendment and civil rights advocates.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition and a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said he is concerned about the rule’s 30-day notice requirement, as it “may make it difficult for residents to rally around timely issues.”

“Topics that are of the highest public interest are going to generate larger crowds and there isn’t always the luxury to give timely notice,” said Silverman.

Also worrisome is a requirement that applicants, according to the ordinance, “carry public liability insurance in an amount not less than $1 million per person for bodily injury and for property damage with the city to be named as an additional insured.”

“The town would have to provide an explanation for such a burdensome requirement,” said Emma Bond, an attorney at the Maine American Civil Liberties Union.

Silverman said a better solution is to increase law enforcement presence and to negotiate an agreement with the organizer after the event, rather than prohibiting them from using city land altogether.

“Law enforcement should be leaned on to help keep things peaceful,” said Silverman. “The answer is not to limit everyone’s right to peacefully assemble.”

Bath Police Chief Mike Field helped write the ordinance and said it’s based on similar rules in Brunswick, Freeport and Augusta. Field said the ordinance gives law enforcement some backing, so if an event causes property damage or personal injury, police have a way to ensure those responsible pay.

“We’re a small department and busy enough as it is,” said Fields.

The law was approved unanimously by the city council last month and went into effect last week.

Superior Court Justice Dan Billings suggested the law after he acquitted nine protesters arrested outside the Bath Iron Works shipyard during the christening of a destroyer last year.

“The city of Bath has no ordinances, has no standards, that govern protests on city streets,” said Billings in February 2018. “There have to be standards if law enforcement is going to deny access to city streets. The city is really risking putting themselves at legal risk by continuing in this manner.”

Andy Booth, Bath’s deputy police chief, said the law does not take away anyone’s First Amendment rights, which include freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble.

“This is a common sense issue,” said Booth. “(The ordinance) is in no way geared toward protesters. This does not infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights. It gets (police) aware of what’s going on so we can make arrangements with the permit-seeker.”

In a statement from the city, Peter Owen, Bath’s city manager, said the ordinance saves taxpayers money by allowing the city to bill necessary city services to the event holder.

“When a large event happens in the city that we are unaware of, city services such as trash removal, medical services, street closures, and, in some cases, crowd control, must be lent at the expense of the taxpayer,” said Owen. “With this ordinance, we will be able to estimate costs and charge the event organizer instead of passing the bill to our residents.”

Owen did not respond to a request for additional comment.

The permit application comes with a $25 fee and must be submitted at least 30 days prior to the event. If denied, the permit-seeker can appeal.

Advocates are also concerned over a section of the ordinance that states, “traditional types of special events … held by a department or agency of the United States, the state of Maine, city of Bath, or Regional School Unit 1,” are exempt from needing a permit to hold special events.

Field said this is because the city would be billing itself if it required a permit for its own events.

“We exempted RSU 1 because they have so many events, like sports games, but we do bill them for any city services they need,” said Field.

“The fact that there’s an exemption for certain groups gives us pause,” said Silverman. “If our concern is viewpoint discrimination and there’s an exemption, that’s a red flag.”

Bond said the way the ordinance defines a special event leaves discrepancy for city officials to choose they what believe a traditional special event is.

“Towns certainly have a responsibility to manage their property and keep their residents safe,” said Silverman. “Residents have the First Amendment to assemble on public grounds and speak freely. Anything that imposes on residents’ rights should be closely scrutinized.”

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