ST. PETERSBURG — Less than a month after Tampa approved rules for protests outside the Republican National Convention, officials in St. Petersburg are drafting similar regulations for an Aug. 26 kickoff event expected to take place at Tropicana Field.
More than 15,000 journalists and 5,600 delegates plan to attend the event, which is essentially a cocktail party with live music. It's expected to draw a fair amount of protesters, said Mark Winn, St. Petersburg's chief assistant city attorney.
"There will be thousands coming to protest, and some will be disruptive," Winn said. "The ordinance will be somewhat modeled after Tampa's. One of the reasons we waited this long was to see what Tampa would adopt."
In May, the Tampa City Council approved a designated protest area — called the "Event Zone" — that is open to everyone, no permit necessary, 24 hours a day, and where most weapons are banned. Inside the zone, groups of 50 or more still must apply for an all-day permit for parks. Originally, that had been limited to an hour. The time limit for marches was limited initially to an hour but later expanded to 90 minutes.
Several items are banned inside the zone, including Mace, metal knuckles, aerosol cans and certain types of plastic and wood. Tampa tried to prohibit concealed weapons, but Gov. Rick Scott refused to issue an executive order banning the weapons.
"We'd like to address concealed weapons, but the state has preempted us on this issue," Winn said. "I don't anticipate we'll have any more success then they had."
Winn and other St. Petersburg officials said there wasn't much to disclose about the proposed zone. They haven't made any additional changes to Tampa's ordinance yet because they just started reviewing it last week. He said he intends to have an ordinance ready for a St. Petersburg City Council vote by mid July.
In the meantime, Winn has been meeting with St. Petersburg and Tampa police officials, in addition to representatives from the U.S. Secret Service.
Civil liberty and free speech groups said Tuesday that they would try to meet with St. Petersburg officials to convince them not to mimic Tampa's ordinance.
"For St. Petersburg to adopt in total or in part what Tampa has done is not the best fit for a one-time event that will be in a different kind of venue," said Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of the mid-Florida regional office for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're more than willing to talk with the city and try to figure out what would make the most sense for St. Pete."
Amos Miers, who founded Free Speech Project last year to provide greater awareness of First Amendment issues, said the Event Zone violated constitutional rights. Requiring a permit for large groups to peacefully assemble violates basic rights, Miers said, and too easily encourages the use of force against protesters.
As to where the protest zone will be, that depends on the venue that will be hosting the Aug. 26 event. So far, it's scheduled at Tropicana Field. But no contract has been signed between the tenants, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the RNC.
"We haven't confirmed there will be an event in St. Petersburg," said Mayor Bill Foster. "When that occurs, we're ready to go."
He said when the contract is signed, the city will follow the lead of the Secret Service.
"They're the ones responsible for securing the event," Foster said. "But we'll do it right."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.