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Event Zone rules for RNC protests gain first Tampa City Council approval

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn's revised rules for protests outside the Republican National Convention won initial City Council approval Thursday even as critics said they would choke the free-speech rights of protesters.

"Not much has changed," said protest organizer Jared Hamil, who is working on plans for a 5,000-person march on Aug. 27, the convention's first day. "Any ordinance or law that says where protesters need to be and for how long is a direct repression of the voice of the people."

The council voted 5-2 for the temporary convention ordinance, which goes to a final vote on May 17. Mary Mulhern and Yvonne Yolie Capin voted no, with Mulhern saying the proposed "Event Zone" was still too big and its list of banned items too extensive.

City attorneys said they had tried to address objections that civil libertarians, protest group leaders and council members themselves raised on April 5.

City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. said the city welcomes all who want to speak their mind during the convention, but needs the ordinance to give police the tools they will need to keep visitors and residents safe.

Assistant police Chief John Bennett said police take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that goes for their work at the convention, too.

"Our job is to protect free speech, and it's our job to make free speech available to everybody," he said.

While the temporary ordinance puts new rules into place for the convention, Bennett said officers would exercise discretion in deciding whether to make an arrest.

"Just because the letter of the law is broken doesn't mean there's going to be an arrest," he said. "The sanity check's going to be put on top of everything."

As approved, the city will create a designated protest area — open to everyone, no permit necessary, 24 hours a day — within sight and earshot of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

It will establish an official parade route.

And it will ban many weapons in an Event Zone that includes downtown north to Interstate 275 and Interstate 4, plus Ybor City and an area across the Hillsborough River that includes the University of Tampa.

On Thursday, the council also approved putting the northern part of Harbour Island back in the zone.

Inside the Event Zone, groups of 50 or more can apply for an all-day permit for parks. Originally, the city proposed a 60-minute time limit for those assemblies. Similarly, the time limit for marches on the parade route has grown from 60 to 90 minutes.

Further, officials clarified that a proposed citywide ban on many weapons or things that could be used as weapons would apply only to public property, not to homes or businesses. And such items would be prohibited when they were carried with the intent to hurt someone or do damage.

The revised ordinance includes a range of improvements, said Michael E. Pheneger, a retired Army colonel who is president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

For example, he said, the ordinance now recognizes the rights of those who come to Tampa to protest, makes clear that all city parks and streets are potential venues for demonstrations, eliminates permit fees, creates an appeals process when permits are denied and allows people younger than 18 to apply for permits.

"It does a number of good things," he said. "That said, it's an improved ordinance. It's not a good ordinance."

The problem, he said, is that Tampa's rules are process-driven and bureaucratic. But street protests are organic and unpredictable.

What will happen, he asked, when demonstrators in a park spontaneously decide to march to the designated protest area?

"This is a great big problem," Pheneger said. "It still rations free speech. The 90-minute limit is an improvement over the 60 minutes originally proposed, but it's still too short. Giving groups all day in a park is very nice, but it basically limits the number of people and groups that will be able to protest."

Not everyone, however, criticized the city's efforts to keep protests from spiraling out of control.

"It's freedom of speech only, not a free for all," said Laura D. Zahn of Tampa. She predicted that protesters converging on Tampa could cause millions of dollars in damage. But "we are the ones who will pay for … their staged anarchy and their staged anger."

Before the vote, to illustrate what the city needs to be prepared for, Shimberg sent council members a news story about disturbances Tuesday in Seattle.

There, black-clad May Day protesters rampaged through the downtown shopping district, spray-painting cars, slashing tires and smashing plate-glass windows.

As a result, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn signed an emergency order authorizing police to confiscate sticks, tire irons, hammers and potential implements of destruction.

Officials said protesters carried flags and signs on heavy, 5-foot-long poles that they used as weapons to attack stores like Niketown and Starbucks.

Council member Harry Cohen also mentioned this week's news out of Cleveland, where the FBI charged five men in a plot to blow up a bridge on a four-lane highway.

In the months leading up to the arrests, one suspect once mentioned the convention in Tampa during a discussion about possible targets, according to the FBI.

"These are not fantasies," Cohen said. "These are real concerns that our mayor and our law enforcement are going to have to worry about."

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

Other business

Council members also:

• Gave initial approval to allowing Tampa bars and restaurants to stay open until 3 a.m. during the four days of the convention. City codes generally set a 3 a.m. closing time for businesses that serve alcohol, but some have conditions of operations that require them to close earlier. Council members want delegates and other visitors to be able to get a late supper after RNC sessions end. A final vote is scheduled for May 17.

• Authorized spending $192,000 to demolish the dilapidated and, officials say, dangerous Bayshore Boulevard municipal marina.

Event Zone rules for RNC protests gain first Tampa City Council approval 05/03/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 11:47pm]
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