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Terri James lets the public know her opinion about Decatur's smoking ordinance during a protest in front of Tony's Country Cooking restaurant on Sixth Avenue Southeast on Monday.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Terri James lets the public know her opinion about Decatur's smoking ordinance during a protest in front of Tony's Country Cooking restaurant on Sixth Avenue Southeast on Monday.

Still fuming about city's smoking ban
Protesters told to remove signs at Decatur City Council meeting

By Evan Belanger
evanb@decaturdaily.com 340-2442

Two weeks into Decatur's ban on smoking in public places, it appears members of the City Council don't want to hear — or read — complaints about the new ordinance, some residents say.

From left, Stephanie Jones, Ray Gossett, Felicia Moody and Judy Taylor went to the Decatur City Council meeting Monday to protest the city's smoking ban.
Daily photo by Bayne Hughes
From left, Stephanie Jones, Ray Gossett, Felicia Moody and Judy Taylor went to the Decatur City Council meeting Monday to protest the city's smoking ban.
During a council meeting Monday, Council President Billy Jackson ordered four demonstrators to lose signs critical of the ordinance, claiming they constituted an unreasonable distraction for councilmen and others attending the meeting.

After a brief exchange, the demonstrators left the council chambers when Jackson requested the presence of Police Chief Kenneth Collier and refused to conduct further business until the signs were removed.

"If they were not willing to remove their signs in an orderly manner, then I was going to have to remove them. It's that simple," Jackson said after the meeting.

According to Jackson and city attorney Herman Marks Jr., the signs did constitute a distraction because they could have blocked the view of those seated behind the demonstrators.

While the demonstrators appeared to be holding the signs in their laps, both Jackson and Marks said they repeatedly raised the signs high enough to cause a distraction. Jackson said some of demonstrators raised their signs to the seatbacks in front of them, too high to be allowed.

The order to remove the signs came as a surprise to the demonstrators, who remained silent until confronted by Jackson.

"I don't know of any law that says we can't sit here with our signs in a meeting," said demonstrator Felicia Moody before leaving.

Moody is part owner of Tony's Country Cooking, a business that she said is being devastated by the new ordinance, which took effect Oct. 1. It bans smoking in all public places, including bars, restaurants and offices.

Business decline

Outside the council chambers, Moody said Tony's Country Kitchen has been in a downward spiral since the ordinance took effect, losing between $2,500 and $3,000 worth of business a week

The decline could force her to lay off employees, she said.

Moody and the other demonstrators, who described themselves as employees at Tony's and "regular citizens," said they attended the meeting to show the council members how their actions were affecting others.

Messages written on their signs included, "Would you love me again if I spit tobacco instead of smoked it?" and a reference to George Orwell's "1984," a novel in which a totalitarian society of the future is watched and censored at all times by an imaginary "Big Brother."

"This is far from over," Moody said. "The citizens want their rights back. And if we have to campaign against the council members to get them out of office, that's what we'll do."

The group also staged demonstrations against the ordinance Saturday and Monday afternoons at Tony's Country Cooking.

Free speech?

While Decatur's city code does not specifically state signs cannot be displayed at public meetings, it does give the council president control of the meeting.

The code allows Jackson to "maintain order" and even gives him the authority to remove people who refuse to obey his directions.

But according to the Alabama Press Association, the city ordinance is not enough to abridge Americans' inalienable right to free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

When questioned about the incident Monday, Dennis Bailey, general council for the Alabama Press Association and an instructor of media law at Auburn University, said any court would likely find that the signs are protected under the First Amendment.

Bailey said the city can impose "reasonable restrictions" on the time, place and manner for thoughts and ideas to be expressed, but attorneys would be hard pressed to defend the restrictions in court unless the signs contained obscenities or endangered the public.

"If somebody sits there with a sign in their lap and remains quite, I can't imagine how that would be capable of being restricted," he said. "I think they erred in requiring the people to remove the signs."

In addition, District 5 City Councilman Ray Metzger said he supported the demonstrators' right to keep the signs during the meeting.

"The people that voted in that ordinance should have to read those signs and know how the people are hurting because of it," he said.

Decatur's ban on public smoking has been a hot-topic issue since the council passed it Aug. 6.

It split the council with a 3-2 vote, seeing councilmen Jackson, District 1; David Bolding, District 2, and Ronny Russell, District 4, voting in favor. Councilmen Metzger, District 5, and Gary Hammon, District 3, voted against the measure.

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