CORRECTION: The original version of this article conflated the city ordinance that governs “parade and street events” with the ordinance that governs “protests.” The revised version clarifies the authority of the Special Events Committee and includes updates about the committee’s role in approving a candlelight vigil for Wyatt Outlaw, as well as the city council’s approval of several events at its meeting on March 8 — the day this article was originally published.

Graham City Council’s decision to temporarily suspend the city’s Special Events Committee has community activists pleading to have their voices heard and prompted questions not only about First Amendment rights, but also the mayor’s conflict of interest in protecting her own businesses. 

In a special meeting on Feb. 23, Graham’s City Council voted unanimously to suspend the events committee, which had been designated to issue permits for “parades and street events.” Graham Mayor Jennifer Talley specified in the meeting that the purpose for calling the special meeting was to discuss what the council was “looking to do to suspend issuing permits” until its members can rewrite the city’s ordinances. 

For activists in Graham, the council’s vote is problematic as the city is already ground zero for issues of racial injustice — from the 1870 lynching of Wyatt Outlaw, to the 1914 erection of a confederate monument and recently the October 2020 “March to the Polls” where law enforcement utilized pepper spray and arrested eight people — including two Elon University students.

Calling the meeting

Jamie Paulen — an attorney, civil practitioner and former magistrate — stood behind the council chambers lectern during the Feb. 23 meeting as Police Chief Kristy Cole outlined to the council the Graham Police Department’s involvement in the local event processes. When Cole finished speaking, she turned around to exit the lectern and saw Paulen.

“Chief Cole turned to me and said, basically, ‘You're not allowed to speak,’” Paulen said. 

As Paulen continued toward the lectern to speak, Mayor Pro Tem Ricky Hall called a point of order — a question of whether procedure is being followed — and said that her speaking during the meeting was “out of line.” But Paulen continued in front of the council.

“The conversation that I’m hearing today is really disturbing to me,” Paulen said in the meeting. “What you’re talking about is basically prior restraint on speech, and my concern is that you as council members are much more concerned about the business people in this city … instead of the people who come here to express themselves.”

Although Paulen was nervous to insist on voicing her opinion, she said she did it because she believed it was the right thing to do.

“I've represented somebody who was arrested and charged just for speaking at a public meeting,” Paulen said. “Knowing that the chief of police was standing there and the chief of police was the person who told me I wasn't supposed to speak. … It was frightening. But there's no one else who’s going to speak up.”

Paulen owns the law firm Paulen Solidarity Law and actively represents protesters and demonstrators within Alamance County. Having practiced law for nearly 20 years, Paulen said her attention turned to Alamance following the murder of George Floyd. According to Paulen, her focus is prior restraint and how it limits people’s First Amendment constitutional rights. 

Avery Harvey, a Graham resident, activist, community organizer and local business owner, said he feels like the local government is not looking out for the people’s best interests with this change.

“Quite frankly, we're just trying to grasp the whole point,” Harvey said. “It seems like they’re just taking all our rights away.”

Ordinances and clarification

According to Graham’s Code of Ordinances, the legislation that granted the events committee authority within the event-approval process states that the city manager is responsible for establishing a special events committee, composed of city staff, to determine whether proposed parades and street events meet the standards and regulations the city has mandated for events.

A post to the city of Graham’s Instagram page following the Feb. 23 meeting stated that there was “some misunderstanding” over the event committee’s role in the permit approval process “related to demonstrations and protests.”

The post said that under the existing ordinance, permit approval for protests and demonstrations are granted or denied by the chief of police, and that the events committee never had a role in the approval process for demonstrations or protests under the ordinance — but rather parades, street fairs and festivals.

Yet one such event, a candlelight vigil for Wyatt Outlaw that was held on Feb. 26, was indeed submitted to the special events committee. According to the chair of the events committee Mary Faucette, organizers applied and were approved for an events permit.

“The chief of police, working in this committee, has informed me that when there’s an event that has amplified sound, it is then to have a special event permit,” Faucette said in the meeting. “That is why the First Presbyterian Church’s event, the candlelight vigil for Wyatt Outlaw, was vetted by the SEC.”

Under Graham city ordinances, the terms “protests, protest, and protesting” include “demonstrators” and “persons participating in vigils.”

Council members Hall, Bobby Chin, Joey Parsons and Bonnie Whitaker did not respond to Elon News Network’s request for an interview. When reached over email, Faucette declined a request for an interview by Elon News Network. 

According to a text message Hall sent to council member Joey Parsons on Sunday, Feb. 20 — obtained through a public records request — Hall was also concerned about Faucette and the events committee bypassing the will of the council.

“Joey, I'm sorry for the short notice on the meeting, but we are trying to stop or head off Mary from approving a bunch of roads closings, in the downtown district with out Councils approval,” Hall wrote. “The only way to do this was to call a special to change the ordinates that created the special events committee and it's Authority. We were hoping to do this at the March meeting, but, things have gotten out of hand and could not wait."

During the meeting on Feb. 23, Faucette specified that there were 11 events approved by the events committee on Feb. 1. After deliberation on what the events committee’s role in the event-approval process was, Talley specified in the meeting that the events approved by the events committee earlier that month would have to reapply for event permits and be formally approved by the council for street closures.

Seven of these events were approved by the council in the next city council meeting on March 8

To end the Instagram post, the city specified that the council is drafting an ordinance amendment that would authorize the city council to grant final approval, rather than the events committee, to minimize traffic and business impact during special events.

Financial interest

The financial impact of city events, however, is noteworthy to Paulen considering the mayor’s  personal investment in downtown businesses.

Talley, according to data obtained by the North Carolina Secretary of State, is listed as a registered agent, company official and manager for seven businesses — all located in downtown Graham near where Main Street and Elm Street intersect. Main and Elm streets were the specific streets mentioned during the special meeting Feb. 23 as the two most popular roads where events are hosted in Graham. 

“To me, I really don’t want to be affecting people’s businesses and having businesses to close because they can’t have access to parking in front of their building or access to their area because someone’s decided to do a street festival in front of their property,” Talley said during the meeting.

Talley did not respond to Elon News Network’s multiple requests for comment on this article.

Talley, along with her husband, William Gordon Talley, is listed as a manager under company officials for Colonial Hardware Company, Graham Cinema, Graham Soda Shop and Grill, I-40 Drive-In, Court Square Development Group, Home Court Advantage, and The Majestic on Main. 

“When you start closing down North Main Street or South Main Street, you really start affecting people’s livelihoods,” Talley said during the meeting. “To me, it seems a little unfair to those businesses not to be able to come and speak to the governing body.”

Graham’s ordinances state that no member of a board or commission may “discuss, advocate or vote on any matter in which he or she has a separate, private or monetary interest, either direct or indirect.”

As specified in the ordinance, “any member who violates this provision may be subject to removal from the board or commission.”

Paulen said she thinks it is a “clear conflict of interest” for Talley as mayor of Graham to discuss and advocate for businesses in the meeting, while also having multiple business interests in the area of downtown Graham most affected by events.

Community organizer and Graham resident Faith Cook said she also considers Talley’s behavior a “huge conflict of interest,” especially since Talley is a part of the council that is working on rewriting the ordinance to directly seize authority over the events committee.

Cook also said she thinks events draw more people and attention to local businesses, and she doesn’t understand Talley’s concern over events taking business away from downtown Graham.

“You're worried about the traffic that these places aren’t getting when there’s an event that requires the streets to shut down, but that's not something that happens,” Cook said. “That not only can bring money into Graham, but because they're shutting down these special events, you’re losing money. … What are people supposed to do, other than take their events somewhere else?”

Kristofer Loy, community organizer and resident of Graham for 23 years, attended the meeting on Feb. 23 and said he believes that the council’s decision to suspend the events committee only benefits Talley.

“It essentially centralizes power in the hands of Jennifer Talley,” Loy said. “The actions she's taken to then postpone any further events just sort of contextualizes how she wants to have executive control over this process, and I see that as going to be very damaging, long term, to activists in Alamance.”

As Talley said during the meeting, Hall called the special meeting to have the council address how the current ordinances and event process affects businesses in terms of street closure for events.

Chin commented during the meeting that the grounds for the event committee’s suspension stemmed from the fact that the committee was not composed of elected officials. Talley and Chin both said during the meeting that they believed the committee could not accurately represent the public if members of the public had concerns about street closures.

Prior restraint and freedom of speech

Though Paulen attended the meeting just to hear what the council had to say and did not originally plan to speak, she said she felt inclined to provide her input after listening to Tom Boney, president and publisher of the Alamance News, stand up and advocate for businesses as a member of the public. 

According to Paulen, she was advised prior to the meeting, as well as during the meeting by Cole and the council, that only city staff members could speak before the council during the meeting.

After hearing Talley solely focus on the perspective of businesses and the effect that street closures might have on them, Paulen said she is worried that the council could dismiss or deny speech that they do not agree with by taking over the event-approval process.

“The approval process is going to depend on the nature of the event and what the speech is,” Paulen said. “My concern is that because of the politics of the people who are in charge in Graham, that's what's going to be used as a criteria to decide which events are approved and which are not.”

According to Elon Law professor Enrique Armijo, who specializes in teaching freedom of speech, freedom of expression and constitutional law, content-based restraint is generally not permitted under the First Amendment — except in the narrowest cases such as those of national security.

When it comes to event-approval processes, Armijo said they have been deemed OK by the Supreme Court as long as the board, committee or council with event approval authority is not denying events on the grounds of the content being shared.

“If the city council had said, ‘No … Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Graham, or no Confederate monument protests in downtown Graham’ — that would be more of a classic content-based distinction,” Armijo said.

By “classic content-based distinction,” Armijo said the First Amendment is most concerned with the kind of censorship that specifically prohibits certain content or speech. Although he said he doubts the council will clearly state that specific speech is not allowed, Armijo said the effect of the committee’s suspension on local activists — not being able to demonstrate — is essentially the same effect as if the council engaged in content-based restraint. 

“That's not a classic content-based ban of speech, but it's still problematic,” Armijo said.

At the meeting, Paulen said she felt as if she was the only one who could speak to the impact on activists that the council’s decision could have on freedom of speech.

“What you're doing when you're requiring people and groups to get permits before events, you are engaging in prior restraints on their speech,” Paulen said.

Community addresses change

Paulen said she recognizes Graham’s history with police brutality and discriminatory behaviors, and emphasizes the importance of giving a voice to those who are oppressed or targeted. 

“I try cases where my clients are Black, and have to walk past that Confederate monument to get to their court dates,” Paulen said. “There are just people who don't understand what that message is to Black folks when they see a Confederate soldier guarding the courthouse.”

According to Paulen, because the event-approval process is relatively new, Paulen also thinks that the current laws and ordinances are unclear at the expense of activists.

“The Wyatt Outlaw event is an example demonstrating that these lines are not clear,” Paulen wrote in an email to Elon News Network. 

Despite being wary of Talley and the council assuming more control of the event-approval process, Loy said he was more concerned about the police representation on the events committee. According to Faucette, the Graham Police Department, Fire Department, Recreation and Parks Department, Public Works Department and Downtown Development all have representatives that make up the events committee. Therefore, he said he hopes some good will come out of the council’s vote.

Loy, who was present at multiple demonstrations where he witnessed hostility between the Graham Police Department and activists, said he thinks removing police from the event-approval process might in fact give activists more freedom.

However, Cook and Harvey said they still think that the events committee is the best way to handle the event-approval process. Although both organizers said they have had their fair share of negative experiences with the police, at least the former process incorporated the Graham police as a part of the conversation — allowing Cook, Harvey and others like them to converse and compromise with local law enforcement.

Looking ahead

Thinking ahead, Cook said she is concerned that when midterm elections occur this fall, any events that activists might want to do in the spring or summer could be silenced. Especially if the council decides to stretch out the amount of time it takes to fix the ordinances, Cook said they could effectively postpone any permit issuing or approving. 

“If we decide to do something that does require a permit, and we can't get it … now we're forced at looking at, ‘Oh, you're going to be arrested as soon as you hit the street because you don't have a permit,’” Cook said.

Cook and Harvey both said they want to demonstrate again in the future — specifically to portray their discontent with the actions and decisions of Talley and the council.

“We will be out there again. We will be out there,” Harvey said. “Permit, no permit — special events committee or no special events committee. … It’s not right.”

Paulen said she is grateful for the passion presented by other local activists, and hopes more people will begin to care about how the city of Graham chooses to utilize its laws.

“It's not sensible, the way that they're using the law in that city — basically to criminalize speech so that Jennifer Talley’s businesses are not harmed. That's a problem for me,” Paulen said. “I swore an oath to the Constitution when I took my job as a magistrate. I'm an officer of the court and I care about to the extent that we have any constitutional rights in this country.”