Two weeks ago Lawrence citizens stood before city commissioners saying they felt unsafe and threatened after the demonstration that took place on Feb. 3 in the downtown area.
Following those comments, Mayor Stuart Boley, city commissioners and Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. spoke at Tuesday's meeting about what they could and couldn't do to address citizen's comments. They ultimately defended the protesters' right to free speech, even if they didn’t agree with them.
Parents, farmers, neighbors and more told the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday that the Defend Our Flag counter-protest on Massachusetts Street made them feel unsafe.
The Feb. 3 demonstration had been in response a planned flag-dragging march downtown. When it appeared the original event would not take place, the "Defend Our Flag" marchers still walked up and down Massachusetts Street with U.S. and Confederate flags, among others.
Boley said the commissioners waited the two weeks after hearing the comments before responding as a general practice, as well to consult with various staff members about the issues that citizens raised.
Boley made a public statement on behalf of the city commission referring to a statement made by Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan.
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of ideas simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” Boley said. “While many in our community found some of the events in February 2018 to be offensive in this environment, the city of Lawrence must protect free speech.”
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In light of Lawrence becoming a welcoming city in March of last year, Boley said Lawrence is an inclusive community that thrives on diversity.
“The safety of all people should be protected, regardless of race, sex, religion, color, national orientation and sexual orientation,” Boley said.
Toni Wheeler, city attorney, reviewed the First Amendment, saying it is one of the most complex amendments and can be hard to understand. However, she said that it is important for citizens to know that even speech some profoundly disagree with is protected.
“Speech concerning public affairs is more than public expression; it is the essence of self government,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said protests that take place in downtown Lawrence are considered traditional public forums, and no permit is required to to protest in public areas like Massachusetts Street.
“Speech and expressive activity made in these locations receive the greatest measures of protection afforded by the First Amendment,” Wheeler said. “Speakers cannot be excluded from a public forum unless exclusion is necessary to serve a compelling government interest.”
Burns spoke next, addressing the public by saying that Lawrence was a unique town.
“I say this because you have a black man who serves as a police chief, and not every community can say that,” Burns said. “So I feel that I need to address this protest from two sides.”
The two sides Burns referred to in the meeting he said were being able to see the situation as a citizen of Lawrence and as a police chief.
“I would have to say that in 2018 I would think that all people would understand that someone who might look like me be offended by this symbol, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” Burns said. “Now, speaking as your police chief, I’ve made it clear that I expect all officers to treat everyone with respect, this includes those we may not agree with, those that may have done not so nice things, and even those who say not so nice things.”
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Burns said that during and after the protest he received calls from parents who were concerned because they had children attending Haskell University and the University of Kansas.
Burns said he understood why Lawrence citizens were fearful after the protest because Kansas has an open carry law.
“I can tell you that open carrying a weapon is allowed to be carried in Kansas,” Burns said. “I know this makes you nervous; this makes the police nervous.”
City Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he agreed with Burns' statement, especially after a colleague sent a photograph to him of an individual openly carrying a firearm during the protest on Feb. 3.
“I don’t think that an individual having an openly displayed firearm benefits the conversation at all. I don’t think it makes us a better local government. I don’t think it leads the conversation down a better path,” Herbert said. “I understand I can’t do anything about this, but I would use this as an example to our state that, perhaps, having individuals openly carrying firearms down Mass Street may not be a well thought out decision on behalf of our state. And I will use whatever power I have sitting in this chair to get the state to rethink that.”
As far as preparations went, Burns shared with the public that extra police officers were brought in during the protest and a crisis response team was on standby. After the counterprotest, Burns said an intelligence briefing was held to discuss what officers did well and other things they needed to improve on, for instance how officers approach certain situations that may be heated.
After comments had been made, Boley said it was important for people to understand what the Confederate and American flags symbolize.
“Today as in 1861, the Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and the violent enslavement of our fellow human beings," Boley said. "Today as in 1861, the American flag is a symbol of hope and freedom and equality. Only one flag, our flag, the American flag, is the true flag of our country.”
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Michael Almon, the only citizen to speak about this issue during public comment, said he did not think protesters downtown understood what the flags used in the protest stood for.
Almon said he did not want to take away the protesters' right to free speech, but he said he found it concerning what the Confederacy itself stood for.
“The Confederacy went to war with the United States of America, our country. Is that not treason?” Almon said. “They would overthrow the United States of America. So somebody today waving the Confederate flag, to me that says the same thing, that should not be allowed. It’s not a matter of free speech for offensive reasons, but they’re advocating the overthrow of our government.”
Almon said he did not think that this is what the protesters were aiming to advocate for, but said if more demonstrations like this occur, the same overall mentality will prosper, which is not something he said he wants to take place in his city.