The free speech zone at the courthouse has ended.
After discussing phone calls in response to the variety of displays on the Cumberland County Courthouse grounds, commissioners on the buildings and grounds committee decided to remove all the displays during last Thursday's meeting.
"I hated to see this happen, but I'm going to make a motion that we remove all the displays," said 7th District Commissioner Mike Harvel.
Fifth District Commissioner Sharon York supported the motion and it passed unanimously. As of May 1 all displays must be removed from the courthouse grounds.
The reaction by the county came only a couple weeks after a Flying Spaghetti Monster was placed on the courthouse grounds by local artist Ariel Safdie. The display sparked national interest on blogs and news sites all over the Internet. It even appears in the current Rolling Stone Magazine.
"There has been a lot of public discussion on this. Everywhere I go I'm hearing about it. I've gotten a lot of phone calls over this, too. The reaction I'm getting is that we have one of the most beautiful courthouse lawns in the state. Why distract from it? All the displays are distracting from it ... It's gotten out of hand. It's time for all of it to go," said Lynn Tollett, 3rd District commissioner.
"Well, we've got a few that want displays up for longer than that. The Iraq/Afghanistan War memorial people want it left up until the war's over. There's a group who wanted to do an Earth Day display with a big globe. I already gave the okay," Cumberland County Mayor Brock Hill said.
"It doesn't matter. This takes precedence. As far as I'm concerned this is an eviction notice. Everyone with a display needs to be given a notice that there won't be anymore displays allowed," Tollett said.
"What about a display or an object for a meeting up here at the gazebo?" Hill asked.
Committee members agreed that no long-term displays would be allowed. Group assemblies by local nonprofit agencies for an event kickoff would be acceptable or weddings would also be allowed at the gazebo on the courthouse grounds. However, any display would have to be removed at the end of the event. All trash will be required to be picked up and removed in a timely manner as well.
At least one person with a display on the grounds was on hand and reacted to the committee's decision.
"I am pleased as punch to remove it, providing that all displays are going to go," said Al Westerfield. Westerfield has had a Statue of Liberty on display at the courthouse.
In a written response to the decision, Safdie, the artist responsible for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, said, "The responses provoked by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) and other statues demonstrated the concerns that many community members have shared about the presence of religious and political statues on the courthouse lawn over the past two years. Whether the lawn remains open to all statues or becomes limited to only the displays of civic organizations, I hope Cumberland County will always treat the diverse beliefs of the community with equality and respect. After seeing the reaction of the community to FSM and others, I feel confident that county residents will continue to stand up for the freedoms that make America great."
Hill was tasked with notifying those who have displays on the courthouse grounds that they are to remove them by midnight April 30.
The free speech zone at the courthouse has ended.
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