Fearing a First Amendment violation, NC city set to repeal ‘trick or treat’ ordinance

North Carolina news

WHITEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) – With children across America preparing to dress up as goblins, ghouls and a multitude of fanged creatures this Halloween, the city of Whiteville is set to repeal a toothless ordinance regulating the age-old tradition of trick-or-treating.

A local ordinance regulating the spooky holiday is not a concept exclusive to Whiteville; other cities and towns across the state and country have, at some point or another, established rules for door-to-door candy seekers.

Last year, however, the City received “negative comments/press” over its position on Halloween, prompting staff to review the ordinance.

As it currently reads, trick-or-treating is only allowed before 8:30 p.m. on Halloween night by children 12 and under. Anyone older than 12 or trying to snag some late-night candy could be charged with a misdemeanor. If convicted, the penalties include up to 30 days in jail or a $50 fine.

“The City does not try to regulate other floating holidays, why is the City trying to regulate Halloween?” city staff questioned in a summary of the proposal to repeal the ordinance included in the agenda packet for City Council’s meeting on Tuesday.

Also included in the agenda packet is an article written by Pacific Legal — a nonprofit organization that offers legal services in the areas of property rights, individual liberty, and free enterprise — which opined that prohibiting trick-or-treating was a First Amendment violation. Specifically, the article points to the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding the right of individuals to engage in door-to-door solicitation for a variety of causes, including expressive activity.

“Trick-or-treating is consistent with this tradition of expressive door-to-door activity,” the article states. “A trick-or-treater’s costume can be a form of speech protected against government censorship.”

Moreover, city staff acknowledged in the proposal summary that if someone were to contest a violation in court, a judge would likely rule the ordinance unenforceable.

Staff did, however, provide several suggested safety guidelines the city could issue, should City Council vote to do so during Tuesday’s meeting. Those guidelines include:

  • Parents are asked to supervise the Halloween Trick or Treat Activities of their children and to ensure that Trick or Treat Activities are limited to children under the age of 16 years.
  • Trick or Treat hours will be observed from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday, October 31, 2021.
  • Residents who wish to participate in Trick or Treat are asked to leave a porch light, or other outdoor light on during these hours.
  • Parents are asked to explain to children that homes with no outdoor light are not participating in Trick or Treat and that these homes should be passed up during these activities.
  • It is also recommended for the safety of our children that parental supervision be extended to include insistence that children do not consume any “treats” until closely examined by their parents. Parents should follow the rule “if in doubt-throw it out” where evidence of tampering with packaging or surfaces of consumable product exists.

Whiteville City Council is expected meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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