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St. Pete Pride fest protesters set for trial

ST. PETERSBURG — To the churchgoing fellows who drove all the way from Georgia to protest the St. Pete Pride festival last year, their trial will be about the First Amendment.

But to the city of St. Petersburg, it's simply about making sure people aren't plunked by large protest signs.

Whatever the case, five men are scheduled to be tried Thursday on charges that they violated an obscure city ordinance during the St. Pete Pride parade and festival last year.

The charge: Their signs were too big.

The men drove here to protest and carry large signs that said things like "Real men marry women."

The year before, parade participants clashed with protesters, who stomped through the festival carrying large signs and yelling into megaphones.

City attorneys crafted an ordinance to restrict the size of signs people can carry. Any sign wider than a person's torso would violate the ordinance because it could impede foot traffic. Larger signs would be allowed only in designated areas.

The men from Georgia came to the 2007 parade with signs bigger than the ordinance allowed. Police asked them to either remove the signs or protest where they wouldn't obstruct traffic.

The men refused and were taken to jail. A sixth man tried to get arrested, but police said his sign was okay.

The men bailed out of jail and sought the services of David Gibbs, a Pinellas lawyer known for taking on Christian causes, including freedom of speech and religion cases.

Gibbs is best known for representing the Schindler family during the final months of Terri Schiavo's life.

"We can't squelch out free speech that you may disagree with, that you don't like or that someone might think is offensive," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said a lawyer with his firm will argue that police not only applied the ordinance improperly, but the law itself is unconstitutional.

Festival co-founder Brian Longstreth said limiting the size of the signs doesn't infringe on free speech.

"When they use those signs to interfere with people who are there legally and lawfully to celebrate an event, it interferes with people's rights," Longstreth said.

The men likely will face a fine if they lose. One of the arrested men, Francis Primavera, who goes by Franky, said the group won't pay any fines — win or lose. "We either have a constitution or we don't," he said.

Assistant City Attorney Kimberly Proano said the ordinance is designed for public safety, not to deny free speech.

"It's really not a First Amendment issue at all," she said. "It doesn't matter what was on the sign. The signs obstructed pedestrian traffic."

Primavera said the men have protested similar parades in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville and Birmingham, Ala. He said they often get heckled and threatened.

"Our prayer is while we're out doing this, if we could just reach one soul … it would be worth it to us," he said.

When asked if they had reached anyone, Primavera said: "I'm not sure. We haven't had one to come up to us and say 'I've got saved.' But we have had some decent conversations with some of them."

Longstreth says the men could do much more good if they plowed their efforts into helping the homeless or starving children. He thinks they are publicity seekers who intended to get arrested.

"That's all they're after. They're not changing anybody's mind at the festival," he said.

"All they want is to get arrested and get more publicity. It amazes me that in the name of religion or the Bible they can spread the hate that they do."

St. Pete Pride fest protesters set for trial 06/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 11:35am]
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