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Bikers miffed that State Fair turned them away

TAMPA — They rolled up on motorcycles Sunday, looking for a good time and fried goodies like everyone else at the state fair.

About 50 bikers from an array of clubs stepped off their hogs wearing group patches on their leather jackets, only to be turned away.

Fair rules, enforced by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, ban gang colors or signs.

"That's a common practice at the fair and the Strawberry Festival," said Debbie Carter, a sheriff's spokeswoman.

But a lawyer representing the bikers says their First Amendment rights have been violated.

"They're trying to stifle people's rights by using a blanket policy," said Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos. "It's suppressing their right to associate in public."

Individual bikers contacted by the Times declined to be interviewed.

Carter defended the fair's policy.

"It's a potential for something to go wrong," Carter said. "People are asked not to display colors for the safety of themselves and everyone else attending."

Sometimes gang members show up wearing the same red bandana slung around their necks, she said. Or they might all wear the same style and color of clothing.

She said deputies stationed at fair entrances, where signs state the rules, give people the option of removing objectionable clothing.

If not, the group must leave.

The bikers left.

Gangs at the fair have been an issue in the past. Fights have erupted between opposing gangs, a big reason why club colors aren't allowed, Carter said.

Last week, a sheriff's gang unit inspected merchandise vendors before the fair opened to ensure that gang-related clothing wasn't for sale. Members of a multi-county task force also will roam the crowds in search of those displaying gang symbols or hints of their affiliations, as the fair is sometimes used as a place to recruit.

The bikers who were turned away Sunday belong to a variety of clubs, including the Outlaws. Some are members of the Spirit Riders, a Christian motorcycle club, and the New Attitudes, a group of clean and sober riders.

Theophilopoulos said many of the bikers are simply business executives and owners who like to ride.

"The clubs that were with us, none of them have ever gotten into fights at the fair," Theophilopoulos said. "They're not street gangs, and they are being lumped together."

The lawyer said he called the Sheriff's Office Saturday to tell the agency the bikers were coming. He was told that if they wore their colors, they wouldn't be let in.

They tried to go, anyway.

"Sometimes you have to make a statement, to stand up for what you believe in," the lawyer said.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or 661-2454.

Bikers miffed that State Fair turned them away 02/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 10:27pm]

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