Village of New Paltz officials are trying to find a new balance between free speech and public safety, one that supports the protest culture in the community but ensures freedom of expression does not lead to a real risk of harm. Deputy mayor KT Tobin has been studying the issue, and reported to her colleagues at their September 25 meeting. The guiding principles being followed to develop some kind of process to regulate mass gatherings include recognizing the importance of protest as “part of the village identity,” minimizing the cost of compliance while ensuring compliance actually occurs, keeping the process simple and consistent, and making it content-neutral. That last part is a legal requirement which would, for example, put the flag appreciation walk on the same footing as the climate strike despite the different political conclusions one might draw from observing the two events. Present law does require permits for large gatherings, but the requirement is mostly waived in cases like those, where remaining on the sidewalk was an expectation.
Tobin said that trustees “want people to take to the sidewalks” when they feel the need to express themselves, but there are police costs involved to ensure safety at larger events. Representatives of informal groups often request waivers even for insurance, as they have no treasury nor corporate entity to name as insured, but in the spirit of safety and consistency those waivers are not likely to be granted in the future. Tobin framed it as pressure coming from the village attorney, to whom the trustees often give deep deference, but noted that removing the requirement entirely would satisfy all concerned. An inquiry to determine how much it would cost to pick up those needs will be reviewed by the village treasurer.
Keeping the rules content-neutral yet acknowledging that some events might be larger and more dangerous due to the nature of the content is the thorny question with which trustees must wrestle as they decide on a new policy.