The South Jersey town of West Deptford is tightening rules on public protests after a series of demonstrations outside New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney’s home, but the restrictions have opponents crying foul over free speech concerns.
On Wednesday night the West Deptford Township Committee approved an ordinance that requires any protesters targeting a residence to stay at least 100 feet from the property line.
It also limits protest groups to no more than 10 people and says they can only demonstrate one hour every two weeks.
“To me [the ordinance] perfectly balances the people’s right to express themselves while still giving people the right to … the peaceful enjoyment of their homes,” said Committeeman Adam Reid.
But the most controversial item on Wednesday’s budget didn’t inspire confidence in every committee member.
“I think we rushed through this. I think it was a knee-jerk reaction,” said Committeeman Jerry Maher, who voted against the ordinance.
“I said it when we first read it and I’m saying it again — I see us having problems here in being too restrictive.”
The issue of protests targeting a particular residence arose last month when gun rights advocates picketed outside Sweeney’s house.
The group New Jersey Second Amendment Society targeted Sweeney for his opposition to loosening the state’s stringent gun laws, which the group claimed contributed to the fatal stabbing of a woman by her ex-boyfriend.
Police said Berlin Township hairdresser Carol Bowne’s gun permit application was being processed when she was murdered in her driveway in June.
“Why should you have to ask the permission of the government for something that’s Constitutionally protected?” said Alexander Roubian, president of NJ2AS.
(After Bowne’s death Gov. Chris Christie, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, created a commission to study the ownership and possession of firearms in New Jersey.)
Roubian, who is trying to recall Sweeney from office, said the township’s ordinance infringes on the free speech rights of protesters.
“The same way they took away our Second Amendment rights, now they’re working to create laws to take away our First Amendment rights,” he said.
“This is the type of corruption and hypocrisy we deal with everyday in New Jersey.”
Paul Bullinger, who lives on the same block as Sen. Sweeney, said protesters should not have set up outside the influential Democrat’s home.
“You have a right to free speech. I’m all for free speech whether I agree with you or not. That’s not the issue,” said Bullinger. “The issue is: don’t protest in my neighborhood or in any residential neighborhood.”
Possible penalties for violating the ordinance include a fine, community service, and jail time.
Sweeney did not attend the township committee meeting.