When news broke that the town of Franklin canceled plans for the 24th annual PumpkinFest, residents in Macon County sprung into action in an attempt to plan a privately hosted event. John Williams filed a permit the day after the announcement to cancel PumpkinFest was made with the town of Franklin to host a “PumpkinFest Freedom Rally/Event”
The permit noted the event would be held from 10 am. To 2 p.m. on October 17, the original day scheduled for the 25th Annual PumpkinFest. Williams’ permit was denied by the town and according to a letter sent to Williams from Franklin Town Attorney John Henning, the permit was denied because the space requested, the Gazebo on Main Street is already reserved by the town of Franklin, which plans to provide alternative options to PumpkinFest.
The permit also stated the denial was based on a lack of resources. Williams’ intended to host a pumpkin roll down Frogtown, which Henning explained “Safely conducting the activities of Pumpkinfest requires substantial commitment of Town resources, and that is the case whether the Town is hosting it or private individuals are. The Town would therefore not permit the closing of Phillips St. (“Frogtown”).”
PumpkinFest is a town-sponsored event which is funded, coordinated, and organized by the town of Franklin. It attracts 8,000 people to Franklin each year and the town council reluctantly canceled this year’s event due to safety precautions surrounding COVID19. Governor Roy Cooper’s current executive order also prohibits outdoor mass gatherings of more than 25 – another factor taken into account by the town.
Williams, and other town residents, raised the question as to why PumpkinFest is prohibited when events such as Black Live Matter Protests, Back the Blue rallies, campaign events, or last weekend’s gem show are permitted.
“It’s hard to fathom why the festival was canceled while simultaneously being replaced with another event,” Williams said of the town’s plan to provide alternative activities downtown to replace PumpkinFest. “No one is forced to go out to any events and all safety precautions of previous ‘rallies’ would be honored. It almost feels like an attack on the families of Franklin. People from out of town can march with flags for socialism but our children can’t roll a pumpkin down the hill? “
The gem show was permitted because it is considered a retail event, which is allowed under the Governor’s executive order. It was also held on private property and did not require permission or permits from either the town or county.
Parades, protests, marches, or rallies are permitted to be held by private groups because they are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Although the First Amendment protects to exercise of free speech, expression, and the right to peacefully assemble – those activities are not blanketly approved. It is within the town’s legal guidance to restrict such activities to a specific location or a time to address safety concerns or other considerations.
In Henning’s response to Williams’ he recommends considering using the space located on the Courthouse Plaza for any free speech exercise Williams wanted to hold on that day – which would not require a permit from the town, however, would need to be cleared by the county.
While Williams’ request to hold an event was denied, a private Facebook group, Solidarity of WNC, is promoting a “Black Lives Matter Candlelight Vigil” Friday night at the Gazebo in Franklin from 8 to 9:30. Solidarity of WNC has hosted two similar events in Franklin and several in Jackson County. Event details say the event will be hosted at the Gazebo and encourages participants to bring their own candles, offerings such as notes or small jujus for the memorial alter and signs to display. The event is promoted as a silent vigil and peaceful space “for folks to gather while respecting the families of loved ones lost and individuals whose own traumas that will be present in the space.”
According to Franklin Mayor Bob Scott however, a permit has not been issued by the town for such as event. The group posted an update today that said the event would no longer be held at the Gazebo as permits were not issued, and rather they will be held at the courthouse.
“We are attempting to plan around the Towns fall celebration to plan a family event this year,” said Sarah Shiner who is helping Williams plan the event. “While other shops are doing their own celebrations and openings, I’m at a loss in the thought of why we are being denied for our freedom rally. The funds are there even though they’re being used for the “hometown fall on main”. This event stimulates our town’s economy each year. I’m disappointed in our leadership in this town, Covid or no Covid. No one is forced to come out to any events. Masks and social distancing will be required. I hope to see you on the square or wherever we decide to have pumpkin-fest this year!”