No room for politics at IOW Fair

Published 9:44 am Saturday, August 23, 2014

WINDSOR—This year’s Isle of Wight County Fair will have the usual assortment of exhibits, music, rides and vendors. What it won’t have are places available for groups or individuals with political agendas, which have often had a presence at the annual festival. That doesn’t sit well with Del. Rick Morris (R-64), who has been refused a space.

Last month he had requested a booth to both help raise money for CASA Southeast, as well as offer updates on legislation and information on issues in his district and the rest of Virginia. Morris added that he’d also be listening to visitors’ concerns. That plan was turned down by the Fair Committee, which is firm in its decision.

“We’re pretty decided on not having political booths. That’s our stance,” said Danny Byrum, Fair chairman. “We’re about having family fun.”

There are two parts, he added, that “drove us to that position. We got quite a few complaints from commercial vendors who said people were shying away from their booths to avoid the political guys who were hassling people in there.”

Litter was the other reason.

“There was a trash issue. People were throwing down literature that often ended on the ground,” Byrum said.

Hoping for an appeal, Morris took his case to the county’s Board of Supervisors. Replying by letter, Board Chairman Byron Bailey stated the Board sent the matter back to the Fair Committee, which has the authority in matters concerning the festival.

Bailey confirmed the Committee’s decision to allow CASA, which is an advocacy program for children, to have a fundraiser but, “your request to distribute political materials at the CASA dunking tank is not appropriate, as that would violate the spirit of the prohibition on political booths and grant you a special privilege not afforded to other political parties or candidates.”

The Committee went to far as to seek legal counsel because Morris sees the matter as a restriction on his Constitutional right to free speech and assembly.

However, Bailey stated that while there’s a prohibition on political booths at the fair, that doesn’t mean it’s based on what the delegate — or anyone — wants to say, nor are they forbidden from using other ways to get their messages across.

The ban, he added, goes back to what Byrum stated above.

That commercial vendors and guests at the fair have been complaining for the past few years about the distracting presence of the political booths and the people who operate them.

Not satisfied with the response, Morris sent letter on Aug. 14 to the Office of the Attorney General asking for an opinion about the policy that he maintains is “an infringement on Freedom of Speech and Assembly.”

As of Friday, the delegate had not yet heard back from the AG, but he was not expecting an immediate response.

“I’m going to the Fair anyway,” said Morris, who added that he remains “appalled” by the Committee’s decision.

“If they [Morris or other political groups] pay to go in, we can’t and won’t stop them,” Byrum said about their speaking to Fair visitors.