This summer's Republican National Convention will put Tampa in the spotlight like never before. And that attention brings an added responsibility on the city to protect the civil liberties of protesters and the public even amid unprecedented security. The city needs to be thoughtful and accommodating as it looks to change local laws that govern when and how demonstrators and other groups may gather.
Many security arrangements will be dictated by the U.S. Secret Service, including the broader restrictions in and around the main activity areas at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the Tampa Convention Center. But the city still has its own area of authority and an obligation to make its views known when security concerns begin to infringe on the public's right to assemble and express protected speech.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration has spent several months looking at ways to relax the permitting code to make it easier for large groups to gather without breaking the law. The current code is aimed primarily at large commercial events such as charity road races and the like. But the city's requirements for using parks and the public right of way are far too cumbersome and expensive for most political demonstrations. These events typically form at short notice, lack a deep-pockets sponsor and have no set attendance. Tampa police tolerated the Occupy group that set up in Curtis Hixon Park. But the convention shows the need for new permitting criteria, so protesters and police — thousands of whom will be from out of town — will know what is lawful and what is not.
The existing codes make some exceptions for public protests, but those guarantees are few and too much discretion is left to top city officials. That is a recipe for abuse and for costly legal battles. The city should at the least focus on loosening the most onerous rules, such as those requiring long lead times for protesters to apply for permits. Others, such as those requiring multimillion-dollar insurance guarantees and hefty up-front costs for security, cleanup and other incidentals, need to be modified to reflect the fluid nature of accommodating the public at what will already be a high-security event. The goal should be to balance free speech and security. That will require common sense in drafting the new permitting codes.
The city, to its credit, has tried to get ahead of any problems. City officials have met with civil rights leaders and downtown businesses and residents to ease concerns, and they have acknowledged that the city codes — irrespective of the GOP convention — are out of date. The American Civil Liberties Union will hold a public forum on the topic Tuesday at the downtown Tampa campus of Stetson University's College of Law. Tampa city attorney Jim Shimberg is among the panelists. This session should mark another positive step as the administration prepares to bring new permitting codes to the City Council.