KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – A protest lasting over 200 days was challenged Tuesday night by a new Kingsport city ordinance. Despite public comments against the decision, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen passed a change to city code prohibiting non-permitted structures on public right-of-ways.
These non-permitted structures could include tents, like the ones used in a protest encampment outside Holston Valley Medical Center. Protesters of Ballad Health say the ordinance specifically targets their First Amendment rights.
Several Kingsport citizens shared their concerns in the public comment section of a packed BMA meeting.
“The Constitution prohibits the government from prohibiting the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and exercise their First Amendment rights,” said protest organizer Dani Cook.
The protests began in May over Ballad Health’s decision to consolidate trauma and NICU services. Members of the public who spoke out at the BMA meeting said they were concerned the healthcare system was unfairly influencing the Kingsport BMA’s decision.
“We have had over 28,000 signatures on a petition to stop this travesty, Ballad Health,” one speaker said.
But Kingsport mayor Pat Shull said Ballad had no influence over the ordinance.
“People have claimed that somehow we’re being paid or ordered around by Ballad. That’s simply not true,” said Shull. “It really is slander when you get down to it.”
The mayor said allowing the protest to continue would set a bad precedent for how the city could handle other types of protests in the future.
“I’ve heard they’ve got grills in there now and they play cards. It’s like, ‘Wow, they’re here forever,’ and it’s an obstruction,” Shull said.
The mayor said he had no issue with people continuing to protest, but the structures could be a safety hazard.
“I believe people have the right to exercise their constitutional rights,” Shull said. “If they want to continue to protest, they can walk up and down that sidewalk all day and all night long, carrying signs. They just can’t create a safety hazard and an unsightly kind of obstruction in the right-of-way.”
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The vote passed 5-2, with Aldermen Jennifer Adler and Darrell Duncan voting against. Speaking at the meeting, Adler called on both Ballad and its protesters to make an effort to compromise on their disagreement.
“Are you willing to come to the table? Are you willing to show a good-faith effort to break your own stalemate?” Adler said.
The future of the protest is unclear with the ordinance now passed. Cook said in a message to News Channel 11,
“The Kingsport Board of Mayor & Aldermen made it clear in their discussion that they were voting against our peaceful protest despite their previous claims. As stated previously, the Kingsport BMA has declared war on our First Amendment Rights and we will respond accordingly.”
The ordinance does allow some exceptions for certain structures, such as tents related to special events that have been granted a permit. The full text of the ordinance can be found in the Kingsport BMA’s meeting agenda.