COLUMBIA, S.C. >> Lawmakers in South Carolina want to regulate events at the state Capitol in an effort to avoid the chaos of last July, when opposing hate groups held overlapping rallies and overwhelmed a massive police presence.
Since a bill requiring people to obtain a permit for large gatherings on Statehouse grounds failed in April amid First Amendment concerns, a legislative panel is pursuing crowd control through regulations. Drafted rules, similar to those for the U.S. Capitol, have been submitted to the Statehouse Committee for review.
They include requiring a permit for gatherings of more than 19 people, requiring an application to be submitted at least 10 days ahead of the planned event, and barring permits for simultaneous events in the same area.
“I happen to feel you can protect and defend the First Amendment and the public at the same time. But it’s impossible to regulate common sense,” Sen. Harvey Peeler, the committee’s chairman, said Tuesday. “The person who schedules a KKK rally and Black Panthers rally on the Statehouse grounds at the same time has no common sense.”
State officials are waiting for his committee to weigh in on the drafted rules before sending them through the regulation process.
Meanwhile, two pro-Confederate-flag groups have received the OK to gather on the Statehouse’s front lawn on the anniversary of the battle flag’s removal. So far, no other group has sought to reserve space July 10, said Department of Administration spokeswoman Kelly Coakley.
The South Carolina Secessionist Party plans to raise the battle flag, using a portable base, on the same spot where it flew on a 30-foot pole beside the Confederate Soldiers Monument. Accompanying the flag will be a Confederate Memorial Honor Guard, clad in Civil War uniforms.
“They took it down. We’re putting it back up,” Secessionist Party founder James Bessenger said Tuesday. “It’s in defiance of the Legislature and governor for what they did last year.”
The flag and portable base will be removed at the event’s planned 5 p.m. conclusion, though Bessenger plans to make the flag-raising an annual event.
At Gov. Nikki Haley’s urging, legislators approved removing the flag and pole after nine African-American parishioners were massacred during a Bible study at a church in Charleston. Photos of the white man charged with their murders showed him holding a rebel flag.
Haley “opened Pandora’s Box across the country,” Bessenger said. “It’s been a bad year for flag supporters.”
He expects several hundred people July 10. It will be the second Statehouse event for the Secessionist Party, which Bessenger says has nothing to do with hate. In December, about 50 people commemorated South Carolina’s 1860 secession from the Union.
State officials tried to cancel that event, citing the dueling rallies debacle, but reinstated the reservation at Haley’s request, as she publicly noted their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
In July, a week after the Statehouse flag was furled and sent to a museum, a North Carolina-based outfit of the Ku Klux Klan and a Florida-based affiliate of the New Black Panther Party rallied on opposite sides of the Statehouse, attracting an estimated 2,000 people.
Fights broke out as shouting and obscenities escalated between the white supremacists and their counter-demonstrators behind a police barricade. Five people were arrested during the rally. More were arrested afterward, as fighting spilled to the streets beyond the Statehouse. Peeler later scolded the state officials responsible for failing to ask the opposing hate groups to rally on separate days or at least several hours apart.
Meanwhile, the Department of Administration continues to follow its own reservation policy, revised in July to include sending event requests to state law enforcement agencies for input.
But officials acknowledge they can’t stop people from congregating on public property.
“Even if we were to deny a request, we can’t deny someone from coming to the Statehouse grounds,” Public Safety Director Leroy Smith said at a Statehouse Committee meeting in May.