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Protest group claims rights to free speech violated at Sims Park event

NEW PORT RICHEY — One day this spring Sean Kline noticed a group of young people cleaning up around the historic Hacienda Hotel. Impressed with their community spirit, Kline went up to talk to them.

The leader of the group, 23-year-old Zachary Mitrovich, told Kline they all belonged to the American Youth Movement 22211.

"He told me it was about getting the youth involved, and I liked that," said Kline, an outreach coordinator for the Center for Independence, a nonprofit that helps the disabled.

So Kline invited the group to the "Rock the Park" event, a daylong concert at Sims Park to benefit the Center for Independence and a local Marine who lost his legs in Afghanistan. He expected they would volunteer at the event and, perhaps, set up a booth.

Instead, the group showed up at the May 21 event wearing American flag bandanas on their faces and carrying protest signs that read: "Don't let crooked cops, corrupt politicians and corporations take your rights away."

Event sponsors complained. Accompanied by New Port Richey police officers, Kline asked the young protesters to leave. They did — but Mitrovich believes their right to free speech was violated.

Now the New Port Richey Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into the matter.

"There is no greater patriotism than dissent," said New Port Richey resident Daniel Callaghan, who filed the complaint with police about the incident. Callaghan has experience with civil dissent, having chained himself to a road in 2004 to protest the depictions of American Indians at Chasco Fiesta.

Mitrovich says he clearly told Kline up front what the American Youth Movement was about — that they protest abuses of power by large corporations and corrupt politicians, and that they do so calmly, quietly carrying their signs and only speaking if someone asks them a question.

Kline disputes that, saying he didn't know about the group's views.

"I was misguided in inviting them because I was misled," Kline said.

Walking away or forced out?

At the heart of the dispute now is whether the members of the American Youth Movement were kicked out of a public park or whether they left of their own accord.

A police report from the incident suggests the protesters weren't a problem at first.

"I made contact with the event coordinator who stated there were several subjects on the scene who were protesting the event, which they did not mind until people began to complain about the subjects," New Port Richey Police Officer Aaron Eck wrote in a report.

Kline asked the police to stand by while he asked Mitrovich and his group to leave. When Kline and three police officers approached, one American Youth member took video of Kline asking them to leave, and officers asking them for identification.

Mitrovich said out of fear of arrest, the camera was placed in a purse, but audio of the encounter can still be heard. At one point, someone asks why the police were writing down her personal information.

"Because everybody here, the guy that owns the park is trespassing everybody, so you're getting a warning and you're just gonna be asked to leave," an officer can be heard saying.

But the preliminary review of the incident by New Port Richey police found that Mitrovich and the American Youth members were not forced out of the park. Instead, they agreed to leave when Kline asked them to do so, Police Chief Jeffrey Harrington said.

Mitrovich agrees he left, but maintains police intimidation and the threat of a trespassing arrest is what made him leave.

"What are you going to do when a police officer is telling you not to argue with them, and threatening to arrest you?" Mitrovich said. "My right to free speech has been infringed."

A time and a place

Harrington said the officers maintain they did not cite Mitrovich or anyone else for trespassing, and their reports reflect that. Harrington also said he would review the video — which Mitrovich has placed on YouTube — as part of a continuing investigation.

Harrington said any entity that obtains a permit for an event in a city park has a right to put on that event without disruption. But he also said it appears the actions of Mitrovich and his group didn't amount to a disturbance worthy of being removed as trespassers.

The chief said his department has long been accommodating to protests in Sims Park, pointing to large scale events such as rallies by 2008 vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Sarah Palin where dissent was visible.

Mitrovich claims Lance Cpl. Justin Gaertner, the local U.S. Marine who lost his legs in Afghanistan, thanked the American Youth for coming to the Sims Park benefit. The event raised money for Gaertner's care.

Gaertner, who is back in Washington, D.C. undergoing intense physical rehabilitation, could not be reached for this story.

"I can tell you I didn't appreciate them being there," Gaertner's mother, Jill Dalla Betta, said of the protesters. "But it's the First Amendment, I guess."

Kline said he makes no apologies for confronting Mitrovich and his group.

"I am all for First Amendment rights, but there is a time and a place for it," Kline said. "When I heard what they were doing, it wasn't going to happen on my watch."

Protest group claims rights to free speech violated at Sims Park event 07/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 5:16pm]
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