FLEMINGTON, NJ - The ability to hold a rally and protest is protected under the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the people to peaceably assemble – however, when organizers don’t share their plans with local authorities, the result is a hit to the taxpayer’s pocketbook.
According to Mayor Betsy Driver, “on paper, the estimated cash value [or cost per rally for borough personnel, police and DPW] is around $6,000."
However, thanks to Driver’s negotiations with the unions for police and DPW, that cost has been spread out over the next couple of years to lessen the impact on taxpayers.
“Because the unions agreed to comp time in lieu of overtime early in the pandemic when we saw potential revenue issues, it saves the budget line for now,” the mayor said, “but those expenses will be felt in the future. These numbers are only for the borough. County costs for their personnel (sheriff and prosecutor) and costs to other municipalities who have assisted with standby officers are under their respective budgets.”
In Flemington, there were peaceful rallies held every weekend in June. Only two of them, the first one, organized in part by the Democratic party, that drew about 1,500 people and another held in support of police that drew about 350 people, went through the permitting process, according to Flemington Borough Police Chief Jerry Rotella.
The result for the two permitted events was well-organized gatherings with the appropriate number of police and DPW staff on hand.
On July 4 another protest rally was planned. The call went out via social media, but no permits were filed and the organizer did not make contact with township officials.
The result for that event, which was canceled just hours before it was set to begin because of threats made over social media, was two protesters attended along with approximately four police officers from Flemington, three sheriff officers and a few borough DPW employees.
Rotella said that since not all organizers go through the permitting process, he has officers who monitor social media. When the call for the protest on July 4 was posted on the Thursday before, the police were obligated to react.
“We have to ensure that everyone is safe, protect and preserve property and be on hand in case there is a counter protest,” he said.
Rotella acknowledged that the borough and the police could, but do not, take action to shut down rallies even if permits have not been obtained. He added that because it is a First Amendment issue, permits are really just to allow for accurate planning.
OEM Coordinator Brian McNally further explained that the permitting process is not in place to deny anyone their right to gather, it’s there to assist in planning.
“It helps us to know if we have to close roads, put out no parking signs, notify businesses that will be impacted by those acts and plan for personnel,” he said, “and also ensure that there aren’t two events planned at the same time in the same place.”
There is no cost for a rally or protest permit, which is actually called a Parade Permit. It is 13 pages long, but most of it focuses on events where there will be vendors, food concessions and animals present, requiring food and liquor licenses and fire permits.
The portion of the permit for a rally simply deals with street closures, date and time of the event, estimated attendance and the name of a contact person.
The July 4 rally was cancelled in a social media post about an hour before it was scheduled to begin.
“We saw the cancellation post on social media,” the chief said, “but since we had no contact with the organizer, there was no way to confirm that the event would not take place.”
It’s not like on TV, where computer geeks can find anyone on the Internet. In real life, they can’t just conjure up a name or location.
“We do attempt to track it down to the person who posted it, but sometimes it’s a group and no one responds back,” Rotella said. “Our goal of reaching out to them is not to prevent or stop them from their right to speak or protest. It’s to have the details of the event for their safety and to keep any businesses or residences effected aware.”
So erring on the side of caution, the police and borough staff that had been scheduled that day remained in place.
“If we had a point of contact who could verify the rally had been cancelled, we could have cancelled the coverage on our end,” Rotella said.
The unwritten standard for rallies in Flemington, Rotella said, is to “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”