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St. Petersburg tweaks sign ordinance before gay pride festival

ST. PETERSBURG — City officials on Friday tweaked an ordinance that resulted in several arrests at last year's St. Pete Pride festival and will be enforced at the event today.

The changes came a day after a judge found five men guilty of violating the ordinance. The men were arrested at last year's festival because their signs were larger than the ordinance allows.

The men still could be acquitted. Judge Henry Andringa said he will take a few weeks to decide whether the ordinance violates constitutional free speech rights.

The ordinance requires protesters with large signs to stay in a "free speech" zone that abuts the gay-pride festival and prevents protesters within the festival from having signs wider than their torsos. City officials said the ordinance protects festivalgoers from being hit with large signs.

The men arrested at last year's parade traveled from Georgia to protest with signs that had Bible verses and antigay slogans on them. The signs were larger than their torsos. Police asked them to comply with the ordinance, but they refused and were arrested.

City attorneys say the ordinance is lawful because it does not censor the content of the signs.

But at trial Thursday, the men's attorney pointed out that while a box wider than a torso may not violate the ordinance, a box with the words "Jesus Saves" printed on it could.

City attorneys and police met for nearly two hours Friday and made minor changes to the ordinance, including restricting "items" — rather than signs — that are wider than the torso, with exception given to purses, backpacks and things used to transport goods and materials.

"It was a response to some of the objections they raised," City Attorney John Wolfe said.

Wolfe said protesters who carry signs that violate the ordinance will be asked to comply, but will be arrested if they don't.

Pride organizers tried to get a permit that would have allowed them to restrict the content of signs at the event, but city attorneys denied the request because that type of permit is usually reserved for parks that can be closed off, Wolfe said.

The St. Pete Pride Promenade and Street Festival begins with a parade at 10 a.m. that moves through Historic Kenwood and along Central Avenue. The festival is from noon to 5 p.m.

>>FAST FACTS

Today's events

The city's annual celebration of gay life moves into high gear today, starting with a parade and carrying on into the evening. Details at stpetepride.com.

• Promenade begins at 10 a.m. , moves through Historic Kenwood, then along Central Avenue.

• Street Festival, noon-5 p.m. on Central, from 21st to 28th streets; 250 vendors and entertainment on two stages, including headliners Josh Zuckerman, Naan Rancourt. Free.

• Rock Loud, Rock Proud, Betty with Someday Souvenir. 8 p.m. at the Coliseum. $20-$25.

St. Petersburg tweaks sign ordinance before gay pride festival 06/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 1:32pm]

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