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Protests near Sweeney's home spur proposed restriction in W. Deptford

Twice this month, gun proponents took to Nottingham Road in West Deptford to protest outside State Senate President Stephen Sweeney's home.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney. (Curt Hudson/File Photograph)
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney. (Curt Hudson/File Photograph)Read more

Twice this month, gun proponents took to Nottingham Road in West Deptford to protest outside State Senate President Stephen Sweeney's home.

The protesters wielded signs, some bearing the face of a South Jersey woman killed this month, as they asserted that Sweeney, a Democrat, was to blame for tight gun restrictions in the state.

But that type of demonstration would be prohibited in West Deptford if an ordinance introduced Wednesday night by the township committee gains final approval.

The proposed ordinance, supported by the three Democrats on the five-member board, would overhaul a loitering ordinance approved in 1971 and regulate picketing in residential areas.

The measure would ban "picketing that is targeted at and is within one hundred (100) feet of the property line of a residential dwelling." Targeted picketing beyond that distance, it states, would be limited to no more than 10 people for "one hour every two weeks." Those intending to conduct such a protest would need to notify West Deptford police 24 hours beforehand.

Critics said the measure would infringe on constitutionally protected free-speech rights.

If the ordinance is approved, violators would be subject to fines of up to $2,000, and imprisonment of up to 90 days, or up to 90 days of community service.

Democratic Deputy Mayor James Mehaffey said the ordinance was introduced because of the two recent protests, which required a police officer to monitor the situation. While references to Sweeney were made during the meeting, no one mentioned the senator by name.

Police Chief Samuel DiSimone said that with officers taking time off, his six-officer shifts were sometimes down, with a minimum of three assigned to a shift. Assigning one officer to a spontaneous protest, he said, further limits police availability to respond to other incidents, necessitating such a regulation.

"We are trying to protect everybody," DiSimone said. "For me, it's manpower issues. It doesn't matter who the person is."

Michael Miles, a lawyer with Brown & Connery L.L.P., the town's labor counsel, said the drafted regulation was "content-neutral" and lawful because it balances free speech with individuals' expected privacy rights in their homes.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Wisconsin town's ban on targeted protests at a specific residence.

Some questioned the constitutionality of the policy. Joann Priga, 67, a retired church administrative assistant, asked whether hiring another officer would be less expensive than potential legal fees related to possible challenges to the ordinance.

"You are taking away our constitutional rights," she told the committee.

Committeeman Jerry Maher, one of the two Republicans on the governing body, called the ordinance a "direct attack" on First Amendment rights. He questioned the rapid nature of the introduction, saying the committee received the proposed ordinance the night before the meeting.

Mehaffey said the township had information that the protests were going to get "larger and more direct."

"We would do this for anyone," Mehaffey said in an interview, dismissing any claims of a connection to Sweeney's prominence.

Those with the gun-rights group that organized the protests - last Sunday and on June 7 - criticized the measure as one done in the personal interest of Sweeney.

A request for comment on behalf of Sweeney was not answered Wednesday night.

"Let's call it the 'Sweeney Protection Act,' " said Alexander Roubian, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society. Roubian said his group did not plan another protest for Sweeney's home.

His organization's protests have focused on Carol Bowne, 39, of Berlin Township, who authorities say was fatally stabbed by an ex-boyfriend this month. Bowne had obtained a restraining order against Michael Eitel, 45, and had applied for a handgun license to defend herself, which was being processed. Eitel was found dead days after Bowne was killed.

Gun advocates have criticized the state's laws as too stringent. Some Republican lawmakers have proposed prioritizing firearms permits for people protected by restraining orders.