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Lewisburg residents turn to the ACLU to protect their right to privacy

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In Lewisburg, residents say their local officials violated their right to privacy through their complicated Social Gathering Ordinance.

The ordinance requires residents to file five business days in advance for a permit to hold gatherings with 25 or more people if alcohol is served.

Residents reached out to the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union for legal representation in June. The ACLU-PA found the current ordinance – and an alternative ordinance that the Borough Council abandoned in Oct., – unconstitutional.

ACLU-PA lawyer Solomon Furious Worlds said the ordinance violates the right to privacy. However, matters of privacy are not as clear cut as other constitutional protections.

“When it comes to issues of privacy, there’s a lot of gray [area,]” said Worlds. “And, I think the first test that a lot of courts and a lot of lawyers go to is common sense. What feels right? What feels wrong?”

They said the ordinance violates the right to privacy by letting police enter residents’ homes without a warrant.

“It’s in of itself a violation of the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. That’s in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. And mind you, the right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution is explicitly stronger than the one in the U.S. Constitution,” said Worlds.

In Pennsylvania, there is a higher burden on law enforcement to prove they have probable cause to search citizen’s property, according to Worlds.

The permit allows for “inspection of the premises prior to the regulated social gathering, and monitoring during the regulated social gathering.”

However, Borough Council member David Heayn-Menendez disagreed with the ACLU’s interpretation of the ordinance.

“At any given time, we need to be able to know where larger gatherings are taking place in the borough to be able to utilize law enforcement effectively. Again, for the law enforcement though, that line does not say they can enter at any time. It says they can and should observe these parties,” said Heayn-Menendez.

Borough officials created the ordinance back in 2014 in response to noise, trash, and property damages from large parties mostly thrown by Bucknell University students. Heayn-Menendez represents Council Ward 3, home to longtime residents and university students alike. While not on the council during its initial passage, he said the ordinance provides law enforcement a guide.

“We say, ‘This is how we address parties, these are our partners in trying to address parties, this is what we do when parties get out of hand, this is how we protect them and the people around them,’ prior to actually having the parties,” said Heayn-Menendez.

That structure protects the borough’s historic district, which endured the 1972 Agnes Flood, said Mayor Kendy Alvarez.

“So, these hundred-year-old properties that have been through multiple floods are probably not safe for, y’know, gatherings that would be 50 to 100 people inside,” said Alvarez.

However, ACLU-PA’s attorney Solomon Furious Worlds argues that the ordinance does more than protect residents’ property – it violates religious association rights. The ordinance does not define what it means by a ‘social gathering,’ other than regulating gatherings with 25 or more people where alcohol is served.

“It’s certainly arguable that they are not talking about religious services. I would also say that religious services are for many people who partake in them, for the purpose of social interaction,” said Worlds.

The ACLU worries the ordinance is too broad, and risks creating a situation where religious groups must ask their borough officials for permission to hold religious ceremonies where alcohol is required.

The ordinance only regulates purely social gatherings, according to borough council.

“The ACLU looked past this and made a claim about it that would discuss things like religious gatherings, or familial gatherings, or political gatherings. And all of those things are not explicitly excluded but are implicitly excluded,” said Heayn-Menendez.

World emphasized that council officials should not face harsh criticism for creating the ordinance.

“The borough officials are doing what they think is best for their community and I don’t fault them for that. Because they’ve been so communicative and they are willing to continue the conversation, we don’t have a deadline or anything like that,” said Worlds.

Mayor Kendy Alvarez said she hopes the ordinance will be changed to better reflect community needs while following the ACLU’s guidance.

“I’m a firm believer that you do not create new legislation that cannot be universally enforced, because it becomes problematic and tends to disenfranchise populations,” said Alvarez.

As of early Nov., Lewisburg's Social Gathering Ordinance requires residents to file for a $40 dollar permit five business days before their event. All gatherings with 25 or more attendees and serving alcohol must get a permit.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.