Denton County commissioners Tuesday denied a request from a political action group to set up shop in front of the Horn Government Center.
The group, which is affiliated with controversial political activist Lyndon Larouche, had reportedly caused problems for residents in the past. The Commissioners Court, particularly County Judge Mary Horn, was leery of allowing group members back at the center, which houses the county tax assessor-collector, public works and other offices.
"On Friday the 27th of January, we started getting phone calls and e-mails from folks that were over at the tax office, and the comments were they didn't appreciate being followed to their car and they felt harassed," Horn said.
She said that was a busy time at the tax office with county residents filing in and out to take care of tax-related business before the Jan. 31 deadline.
Horn said she also received an e-mail with a photo that showed that the demonstrators - who never advised any officials of their intent to have a presence - had signs taped to the windows of the government center.
Horn had some sheriff's deputies go to the government center to inform the demonstrators about the proper procedure and forms they needed to fill out to be there.
"Which they didn't like, but they agreed to it and they left, [and] they came over here and got the paperwork to fill out," she said.
Horn said the group wanted to appear at county buildings in Denton, Lewisville, Carrollton, The Colony and other locations.
"In my viewpoint, they are bothering people that need to arrive and depart that building to conduct business, and that's not right," Horn said. "The content is his business; when it comes to protecting the citizens, that is our business. That's why I made the motion to deny."
Commissioner Hugh Coleman voiced his concern about the county using prior restraint in the matter and the argument being made that the county was using past behavior to judge future action by the demonstrators.
Coleman asked County Attorney John Feldt about the issue and he assured court members that they would not be in violation of any free speech rights in the application denial. The argument was that the space the group was using was used to go to and from the tax office to conduct business and was not subject to free-speech violations.
"While I don't agree with what those fellows have to say and the manner and means in which they say it, I think we need to respect their right to say it," Coleman said. "And the reason I voted to deny their permit was based on the legal advice of our attorney who said we would not be violating any free speech rights."
Horn also took the opportunity to broach the idea of touching up the county's building usage policy and application form.
Court members were in agreement on this, and Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell suggested a modification she wanted to see - that any applicant have someone living in the county to sponsor them on the application. Horn also wanted to change the application to specify which building an applicant wishes to use.
"This is a profound injustice to the First Amendment," said Craig Holtzclaw, an organizer for the Larouche Political Action Committee. "We're not inside the building; we're not screaming at people, we're not locking the doors. They just invented this authority because they got complaints and acted on those complaints."
Holtzclaw denied claims that members of his group had taped signs to the building or were harassing people or following them to their cars as they shared their views, which included impeaching President Barack Obama, canceling bailouts and stopping what they see as the president's and Republicans' attempts to start a new war.
"We got a phenomenally positive response," Holtzclaw said. "This is uncomfortable for [some people] to confront this dangerous reality, so they call the county commissioners and complain, so they apply an ordinance that is unconstitutional."
Holtzclaw said the group would be returning to Denton County in places where they are allowed to conduct their political activities, such as the post office.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is email@example.com .