The city of St. Petersburg has a difficult line to toe in protecting the First Amendment rights of anti-gay rights protesters while ensuring that those protests don't cause havoc at the city's annual St. Pete Pride parade and festival. But the city's judgment during the 2007 festival was decidedly flawed and resulted in a number of violations of constitutional rights. And it appears that today's festival may also be marred by rules for dissent that go too far in choking free speech. What the protesters declare on their signs or on their T-shirts may not be pretty — it may be downright offensive — but they have a right to say it.
The city has overreacted to a handful of ragtag bigots who regularly show up with signs sporting antigay slurs during the annual festival that draws tens of thousands of people celebrating the region's thriving gay community. Just before the 2007 event, the city passed an ordinance to transform street closure permits into mini, temporary laws. This gave the city's Police Department the power to arrest people who didn't conform to the dictates of the permit.
For the 2007 festival, the city included in its permit some untenable restrictions on speech. Protesters who wanted to mingle in the crowds where the general public was invited were told that they could not hold up signs that were any wider than their torsos. The city justified the restriction by claiming that the rules facilitated the easy flow of foot traffic, but it was an obvious attempt to reduce the impact of the protests.
One of the problems with a sign limit that vacillates depending on the size of the carrier is that it is vague and discriminatory, granting larger people a bigger platform for expression. During the 2007 festival, five men were arrested for carrying signs that violated the torso-size limits. Their cases are coming to trial now.
The signs they were carrying said things such as "There is no such thing as a saved sodomite." Upsetting to be sure, but the signs weren't so large as to seriously block pedestrian traffic. Judge Henry Andringa should throw their cases out on First Amendment grounds.
This year, festival organizers tried to think up clever ways to bar any antigay speech from the event. According to David Schauer, a lawyer and co-chairman of the event, they wanted to call it an "assembly" and give themselves the ability to pick who may enter the festival and what signs to approve. The city didn't go along, yet it is standing by permit rules that are constitutionally questionable.
At a free, open-air event on public property where the public is invited, people with opposing views have to be allowed to participate. Carrying protest signs is a key ingredient of participation.
The idea is simple: speech that is rude, intolerant and backward has to be protected so that speech that is challenging but important may also enjoy safe harbor. There were times in our nation's recent history when messages of gay pride would have been banished from the public square as offensive speech, had local leaders the power to do so. A sturdy First Amendment is what prevented it.
So let the antigay protesters have their large, handheld messages of hate, satisfied in the knowledge that America's strong free speech rights have helped make such bigotry more marginal and unpopular with each passing year.