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GOP convention protests could generate many constitutional issues, experts say

TAMPA — To get an idea of how knotty the constitutional issues arising from protests at Republican National Convention could get, consider the hypothetical example put to a panel of experts Tuesday night.

An anarchist group contacts the city a week before the convention and says it wants to bring 2,000 of its members to Tampa to gather at one of the city's biggest parks, then march along downtown's busiest street on the first day of the convention.

Under the city's proposed rules for the convention, would it need to apply for a permit from the city? If so, could the city process that application in time?

Yes and yes, said City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr., one of the panelists assembled for a "Know Your Rights" forum organized by the American Civil Liberties Union.

It would be likely, though, that the city would direct the group to the official parade route, which has not been set.

Now suppose this hypothetical anarchist group advocated a violent overthrow of the government and posted photos of its members carrying baseball bats at past conventions on its website. Would that be reason to deny the permit?

"That's a much more difficult First Amendment question," Stetson University College of Law associate professor Louis Virelli said. "I think it's very difficult to prohibit or deny a permit based on sentiments expressed on the website, even if they're violent."

What's more, Shimberg said, the city does not plan to make decisions on permits on that basis. Tampa's proposed permitting rules for the convention say officials "shall not consider the content of the beliefs expressed or anticipated to be expressed during the assembly," or the identity of a group applying for a parade or assembly permit.

That, however, was only one of a half-dozen or more tricky constitutional or procedural dilemmas that could arise from the convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30.

To accommodate an estimated 15,000 journalists and perhaps an equal number of protesters, the city proposes to establish a protest area within sight and earshot of the Times Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention, as well as a larger Clean Zone that would cover much of downtown and surrounding areas.

The temporary ordinance containing these proposed rules is scheduled to go to the Tampa City Council for the first of two votes Thursday.

During a 90-minute discussion Tuesday night, the panel said authorities also will need to consider:

• How to handle those arrested around the convention. The court system is discussing creating a first appearance court to get people facing RNC-related charges in front a judge as quickly as possible, said Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt.

• How to guarantee the rights of photographers, which could include traditional press and television photojournalists, but also bloggers and people making photos for social media.

There's always been a tension between police and the press, but that has been exacerbated with the Occupy movement and the fact that virtually everyone now has a phone with a camera, said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

• How to enforce the city's proposed ban on masks worn outside of either the protest area or permitted parades in the Clean Zone.

When Virelli heard about that proposed rule, what he thought of first was a burka. He said he doubts the city wants regulate that kind of religious wear, but it's impossible to anticipate every situation that could come up.

"I think these issues are inevitable," he said. "They always crop up at this point."

GOP convention protests could generate many constitutional issues, experts say 04/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 11:21pm]
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