SOUTH FORK- According to several sources, July 10 during the South Fork Friday Market, there was an incident involving Sol Mountain Farms and a local unidentified individual that prompted the Town of South Fork to change their stance on the solicitation of donations at any event held on town property.
During the farmers market, Sol Mountain Farm set up their booth with Black Lives Matter banners, signs and asked patrons if they would like to donate to the Black Lives Matter cause when they made a purchase. “We wanted to start the conversation with people. We had some good conversations with people before one local individual became openly upset about the request for donations. It was obvious that other customers were upset about it, others were willing to discuss the topic,” said Sol Mountain Farm owner Wes O’Rourke.
In the following days, according to Town Manager Dan Hicks, the town received several complaints from residents and guests about the solicitation of donations from Sol Mountain Farms and opted to send a letter to all vendors at the market asking them to not solicit donations during the market. “This situation is really very simple. We felt at the town that no one should be soliciting donations for any organization because the market should be a peaceful place and there should not be any politics. It is supposed to be for everyone. The people complaining were upset that the town would even allow vendors to solicit donations during the market and so we made a decision,” said Hicks.
Hicks continued to state that, “We didn’t want things to escalate. We decided that the market was not a place to do this because we didn’t want a problem to develop. Black Lives Matter was not the reason we made our decision. We wanted to prevent controversy and wanted to keep the market a peaceful place for all visitors,” said Hicks.
O’Rourke stated that they received the letter from the town stating that they were no longer allowed to solicit donations during the market and that if they did not comply, the town would not allow them to return as vendors to the market. “We tried to contact the town and ask for details pertaining to the new policy. We were told that there was not a written policy or ordinance but that the decision was made during a special meeting to not allow solicitation of donations and that we would not be allowed back at the market if we did not comply. That is context discrimination, and the policy was arbitrary.”
O’Rourke then reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who listened to Sol Mountain Farm’s plight and responded to the town with a letter of their own. In the letter it states, “Solicitation of donations is constitutionally protected speech, and a broad policy banning all such solicitation on all town property violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has concluded that charitable solicitations are unquestionably protected under the First Amendment. Moreover, as the new Town Policy came on the heels of a complaint made against solicitation on behalf of a movement which is apparently controversial or unpopular in South Fork, but is currently commanding national and global attention, the speech at issue is certainly that of public importance. Solicitation for Black Lives Matter is afforded the same protection under the First Amendment as solicitation for the South Fork Table and Chair Fund.”
Hicks stated that after the town received the letter from ACLU, the town opted to not respond until South Fork Town Attorney Gene Farish had time to review the claims made in the letter and that the South Fork Town Board would respond during the next appropriate meeting. “This is not as big of a deal as it has been made out to be. Black Lives Matter protests are not occurring here, yet after the mainstream media got ahold of the story, they are using pictures that depict otherwise. There was one used in an article printed a week ago that showed a gentleman walking in front of a banner reading Black Lives Matter, but you can see the Washington Monument in the background. That is not what is happening here. We are merely trying to protect what is considered a peaceful, non-political farmers market and keep all visitors and guests happy.”
O’Rourke and Hicks both stated that no other solicitation of donations have occurred in past markets. “Our hope is that the town will admit it was wrong and I want an apology. It was unconstitutional and we want to be sure it doesn’t happen again. From what I understand from their letter, there will be no solicitation of donations by any organization in South Fork unless approved by the town and that could potentially be harmful to the community,” said O’Rourke. “If someone, like the Greater South Fork Community Foundation wants to collect donations for community projects, the town is saying they can’t. That is not OK.”
Hicks stated that the town invited Sol Mountain Farms to a meeting to speak to the board about the incident, but that they did not show. O’Rourke stated that they were asking for a copy of the minutes of the meeting where the verbal policy was adopted but was told that because it was a special work session, minutes were not recorded. “We wanted to be prepared for the meeting and asked for the policy or ordinance and the minutes for the meeting and were told that it was a verbal policy and that there was no actual ordinance or policy.”
When asked if Sol Mountain Farm was soliciting donations for the Black Lives Matter cause in any other form, O’Rourke stated that they were not. “We had the idea that we wanted to start conversations with people about this cause and so we chose the market as the place to do that. We are not asking for donations through our online sales or website.”
“Black Lives Matter is real life, real oppression. Regardless of who you are, the town’s choice of words was disrespectful. We have the right to be respected. We believe in this community and want to help the community grow. The policy was arbitrary and there was no need for threats of retaliation,” said O’Rourke.
ACLU ended their letter to the town with the following statement, “We therefore request that the Town of South Fork immediately rescind the Policy that prohibits Sol Mountain Farm from soliciting donations anywhere on Town property. We also request your written assurance that it will not carry out Mr. Teders’ threat to remove the Farm from its role as organizers and vendors of the Friday Market. Please respond to this letter by Oct. 15, 2020.”
“We want to keep the market a peaceful place where everyone feels welcome and that was our only intention. The town will respond appropriately during the next meeting and hopefully we can put this behind us,” said Hicks.