Herndon Officials' Protest Stirs Debate Over Free Speech

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009

The decision by Herndon's mayor and several Town Council members to protest a Democratic fundraiser last month and a fiery community meeting that followed have ignited a free-speech debate and opened old wounds about the town's tough anti-illegal immigration policies.

The hubbub started Sept. 16 outside Jimmy's Old Town Tavern in downtown Herndon, a town of about 23,000 in northwestern Fairfax County. Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedettis and council members Dennis D. Husch, William B. Tirrell Sr. and Charlie D. Waddell, all Republicans, joined a handful of sign-holding protesters outside a fundraiser where Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) was speaking.

The event was being held for Loudoun County Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles), who is running for a state House seat against Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax). Republicans used it as a chance to hold a "tea party" to protest policies of President Obama.

Photos were taken, and left-leaning blogs were aflutter. At a Herndon Town Council meeting a week later, several residents complained about the elected officials' presence at the protest. But the person who really got things stirring at the meeting was Ruth Tatlock, 81. Tatlock, originally from Sweden, has lived in Herndon since 1974.

She criticized the mayor and council members for attending the protest, saying that it showed poor judgment and that it could negatively affect the town's relationship with the governor's office.

"Yes, I know it's a free country and everyone is allowed to protest, but when to do it is important," Tatlock read in prepared comments.

A noticeably agitated DeBenedettis interrupted Tatlock several times before she could finish, and Husch stopped her altogether, as shown on videos posted on YouTube. After Husch said he attended the protest as a private resident, not as a public official, he told Tatlock that she was done speaking for the night.

"This building is to do the town of Herndon business," Husch said, referring to the council's chambers on Lynn Street. "It's not to make political statements. It's not to attack individuals."

As Tatlock tried to read a letter from a friend, Husch lost his temper. He shouted, complaining of lingering vitriol from the town's immigration debate. Since Herndon's taxpayer-funded day-laborer center closed three years ago, Husch said, a small number of disgruntled residents, including Tatlock, had continued to complain.

The furor over the town's day laborers led to the ouster of the mayor and council members who had approved the center in 2005. It also thrust Herndon into the national debate on immigration policy. Herndon has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any locality in the Washington area.

Since then, the new anti-illegal immigration council has looked at several measures that touch on immigration, including supporting a statewide proposal to confiscate the vehicles of drivers who lack a state-issued license. Last month, Husch told the town's police chief to step up petty-nuisance arrests in a three-block area of downtown, where Hispanic men are known to congregate.

Town leaders say the issue is still a sore subject with some residents.

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