The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council January 9, 2006

Charleston to become a "smoke free" City
An ordinance to stop citizens from using the "n" word

Marc Knapp

The City has at last got its No Smoking ordinance. The issue has been lingering for some years like... a stale tobacco smell. As one citizen cynically noted last night, the City formed a group to study the issue some 6 years ago though its recommendations had passed into obscurity. But as Mayor Riley commented of the proposed ordinance, its time has come".

Strong support from citizens
The Citizens Participation period was unusually long as citizens, marshaled by lobbyists, lined up to present their views. The numbers of those who supported the ban on smoking overwhelmed those against it. But even those who opposed the ban generally acknowledged the harmful effects of smoking.

We won't attempt to present all the arguments. The Post & Courier reported thoroughly on the meeting and most viewers have probably seen the report. Generally, those opposing the ban cited studies and anecdotes indicating the harmful effects of smoking and second hand smoke. Presentations were given by representatives of medical and health groups, and a number of physicians. And nobody, at least amongst last night's speakers, disputed their arguments. The opponents suggested a ban was treading on the area of an individual's freedom. This was not right. People should be allowed to decide for themselves.

But at the risk of seeming to side with the opponents of the ban, we did hear a point not heard before. What was going to happen at some of the large bars in the City late at night? A speaker suggested that the City may want give to give attention to its noise ordinance if people massed outside a bar seeking their smoking enjoyment or necessity. Could this prove a big nuisance with Charleston’s narrow streets?

Smoking allowed in some bars and hotels with strict provisos
The new ordinance stretches to 7 pages. In summary, it bans smoking in all work places. Smoking is allowed in bars but with strict provisos - bars must be enclosed on all sides by floor to ceiling walls and have separate ventilation systems which will exhaust the air to an outdoor area. Smoking is also allowed in hotels and motels but again with strict provisos - an establishment can set aside up to 25% of its rooms for smokers, but the rooms must be so designated and signs posted.

The new ordinance is to be effective in July this year. The 6 month delay is to allow existing bars and restaurants to take necessary steps to be in compliance with the new Ordinance. It is also to allow more time for municipalities that adjoin the City to consider a similar ordinance.

Courageous stands by dissident Council members
Council members who did not support the smoking ban were Morinelli, Lewis, Mitchell, and Shirley. We commend them on their courage. With some 75%-80% of the public non-smokers, we suspect that opposition to the smoking ban could cost them votes. Certainly the turnout last night would indicate the majority of citizens support some sort of ban. The issue of smoking bans has been fought in many jurisdictions through the nation. It is an issue that stands up there with seat belts, vaccinations and others, an issue that pits individual freedom against public health. And as at last night’s meeting, public health has won the battle every time.

All of this because of the "n" word
In contrast to that relating to smoking, the ordinance relating to the conduct of the public in Citizens Participation took only 3 weeks. And it all came about because a citizen used the “n� word for emphasis in describing a situation. Talk about perspective!

Ordinance is not very definitive
Meetings need to be conducted in an "orderly manner", and that "profane, abusive or obscene language" should not be used, the new ordinance says. Considering that the ordinance takes up only 1 page, it clearly is not very definitive and indeed we wonder whether it really can be without impinging on freedom of speech.

We have no issue with the contents of the ordinance. What it seeks is certainly reasonable. But will it make a difference? In all my years of attending City Council, I have never witnessed behavior that has been disorderly and where language has been excessive. Citizens frequently have been angry and have used strong words but if there ever has been a case where an individual has “crossed the line� it must have been rare, for I cannot remember it.

Supposed to limit possibility of legal suits. But does it?
I asked City Legal Counsel, Adelaide Andrews as to why we now need an ordinance. She responded that no ordinance existed at the moment and that the City could be sued if it tried to restrain an individual for disorderly or improper conduct. It sounded reasonable! But on reflection, and after perusing the ordinance, do the grounds for a potential suit diminish? This is getting into deep legal territory and I won't venture too far. But in my view, the language in the ordinance is very vague, and lawyers could have a field day in trying to define situations as "profane, abusive or obscene".

As before, the prerogative lies with the Mayor to exercise his judgment and act when "the line" is crossed. He has not exercised this power in my memory, and for this he should be applauded. Better to allow citizens to express themselves even if they temporarily cross "the line", rather than suppress their opinions.

And what about a code for Council members?
And as my colleague Warwick Jones suggested, may be there is good reason for a code of conduct for Council members. He noted the past examples of "affordable housing" issues on Daniel Island, and a rezoning on James Island where certain members of the Council had accused citizens of being racists when there was no evidence for such accusations. If the Mayor is to censure citizens for their offensive statements, then he ought to censure Council members as well. They have no right to verbally abuse citizens.

A sop for Council member Gilliard?
With so many years without incident, and we don't consider the one time use of the "n' word an incident, we ask why Council has so quickly created such an ordinance. The only member of Council who seemed upset about the use was Council member Gilliard, who specifically asked that an ordinance be created. Most of his fellow Council members supported him last night with the exception of Council members Shirley, Lewis and Mitchell. We also note that the Mayor seemed anxious for the ordinance to pass and appeared hostile to a motion by Council member Shirley to defer the issue. We suspect the Mayor is somewhat ambivalent to the ordinance and would like it out of the way. It does not increase or diminish his power at City Council meetings. But maybe he sees it as a sop to a Council member who has given him almost unquestioning support in the past.

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