In the wake of violent protests around the country, Georgetown officials are considering an ordinance that would ban masks in public places.
The ordinance would prohibit anyone from wearing a mask, hood or a disguise that would hide a substantial portion of someone’s face.
Robert Swanigan, assistant police chief of the Georgetown Police Department, explained the reasoning for the proposed ordinance, saying, “If you watch TV, you’ve seen the protests that are going on nationwide,” he told the council at the first reading of the ordinance Monday. “The police department is simply trying to get ahead of that.”
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The ordinance would give the individual the option to protest peacefully without a mask, Swanigan said.
“Having your head covered provides a level of anonymity that ... is proven and known to create violence. We have no way to go back and track them,” he said.
There are exemptions to the ordinance, such as people wearing masks in theatrical productions, wearing sports equipment or a helmet while riding a motorcycle. Other exemptions include anyone under 16 years old or wearing a mask during a city-authorized Halloween event.
“You shouldn’t be out in the middle of the day with a ski mask covering your face,” Georgetown Mayor Tom Prather said at the council meeting.
City Attorney Andrew Hartley said the ordinance would not apply to clothing, such as hoodies, unless the hood was pulled over a person’s face.
“It's only about covering the face,” he said.
Violating the ordinance would be a misdemeanor and would carry a maximum fine of $250 and/or 50 days in jail. Police officers have the discretion to give warnings instead, but should be able to punish repeat offenders, Swanigan said.
Councilwoman Karen Tingle-Sames expressed concern that the ordinance might infringe on someone’s freedom of speech. She used an example of someone wearing a red, white and blue hoodie.
“Maybe somebody says, ‘Hey, you need to take that hoodie off,’” she said. “Because maybe you’re on the other side or maybe because you’re saying a statement that I don’t agree with.”
Hartley said he thought the ordinance doesn’t hinder that freedom.
“It essentially just says if you want to express that opinion, you can’t conceal your identity to do it in an open public place,” he said.
White supremacists have stated they are planning a rally in Lexington to protest the move of Confederate statues from downtown. In a phone interview on Thursday, Swanigan said the police department was not anticipating any rallies.
A vote on the ordinance is expected at the city council’s Sept. 25 meeting.