Tax day protesters last week used the Hays County Courthouse grounds for their protest, but would have been required to pay $445 if it were classified as an “event.” Photo by Sean Wardwell.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to come up with a written policy that governs how the county will accommodate the First Amendment rights of people who wish to assemble on the courthouse lawn and inside the building.
The county’s policy concerning the use of courthouse grounds thus far has been unwritten, emanating from the Civil Division of the Hays County District Attorney, which the commissioners tasked with developing a new policy within two weeks for the court’s consideration.
The issue came before the court after a local group wishing to protest federal government economic policies on tax day was told it had to sign a license agreement, according to which the group would have had to demonstrate proof of Special Event insurance and pay a $150 deposit.
The insurance would have cost the group $445.87. The group elected not to sign the license agreement. Instead of going forward with their original plan of assembling on the courthouse steps and using a Public Address system, tea party protesters demonstrated on the courthouse square at the corner of Hopkins Street and LBJ Drive. Other groups, such as the Women Entrepreneurs of Hays County, the Martin Luther King marchers and those holding the Art on the Square event, have not been required to have insurance, though some have signed the license agreement.
“Like I said, my staff has been less consistent than I would prefer on that,” said commissioners’ special counsel Mark Kennedy. “And we’re fixing it. I guess the question that follows then, is, ‘Is fixing it going to injure certain parties who have used it in the past? If they suddenly find themselves not able to do it, we need to take a hard look at that and see what we can do.”
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) supported a policy allowing commissioners to spare some groups the expense of acquiring insurance.
Said Kennedy after Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, “Personally, I see that being something the public could abuse by pressuring court members to sponsor their events so that they wouldn’t have to comply with all of the other requirements, and it could become an issue for the court eventually, so I want to make sure and protect them from that.”
Much of the discussion in court about the new policy revolved around how to define different events. Conley and Barton were in agreement that those wishing to hold events involving monetary exchange and the placement of “fixtures” — like chairs, tents, grills and tables — should be required to have insurance. Sumter said she would be willing to consider exempting “smaller events” like Art on the Square from having Special Event insurance under the new Use of Courthouse Grounds Policy.
“I believe we’ll drop the insurance requirement for anything associated with political speech or First Amendment issues,” said Conley after the commissioners court meeting.
After the commissioners court meeting, Sumter said the new policy should include an appeals process.
“What I’ve asked Mark to do is to make sure there is an appeals process, so if anyone is denied, they know they have the opportunity either to come to my office, (and) if they can’t get satisfaction there, then certainly (they can appeal) to the commissioners court, to make that decision,” Sumter said.
Conley said even though he “has no use for” the aims of some political groups, he is obligated, especially as a government official, to honor their right to peacefully assemble on public land.
“I doubt that would happen in North Korea, or China, or Cuba, for that matter, but that’s what makes us great and that’s what makes us different, and that’s why we are the ongoing experiment that we are,” said Conley.