St. Petersburg has a part to play in ensuring that the Republican National Convention is secure for convention participants as well as protesters. To prepare, the city approved a temporary ordinance giving police the tools to arrest protesters who carry objects that could be used to trigger violence or damage property. Whether the new law goes too far in limiting innocent and constitutionally protected activities will depend on how police use their enforcement powers.
St. Petersburg's ordinance establishes a 7.4-square-mile Event Zone that encompasses a large area around Tropicana Field, where the RNC welcome party will take place, and reaches to Tampa Bay. On Aug. 26, the day of the big party, the ordinance bars the possession of a range of items in the Event Zone that can be used as weapons or as defensive shields against police (except, absurdly due to state law, loaded guns when the owner has a concealed weapons permit). Among other items, the ordinance prohibits fragile containers, umbrellas with metal tips, light bulbs and any container with liquid except for small bottles of prepackaged soft drinks or water. These items sound pretty innocuous, but past protesters have used them to cause trouble.
Mark Winn, St. Petersburg chief assistant city attorney, acknowledges that a "Publix problem" exists — people walking home from the downtown grocery with a large bottle of soda would be technically breaking the ordinance. He says that police will have to use their discretion to leave those people alone. While police are giving leeway to shoppers, they should give that same consideration to protesters holding an umbrella against the prospect of rain.
There are some lingering First Amendment issues with the ordinance, including its limits on the use of masks — anonymous political speech is constitutionally protected — and the fact that groups won't have access to outdoor assembly and park permits during the entire RNC run. Winn says it's a question of police resources but that large groups of protesters will not be driven from area parks if they don't have a permit. As long as that happens, the city will have met its obligations.
Credit should be given to the city's legal department for working with the American Civil Liberties Union to tweak the ordinance to be more First Amendment-friendly. A parade route and public viewing area near Tropicana Field on the day of the welcome party will be available to protesters in addition to public parks and sidewalks. Masks, which have been used at past political conventions as satire, will be permitted in the parade route and public viewing area on that day.
St. Petersburg should make sure it prepares as Tampa has by training law enforcement personnel to ignore baiting by protesters. In the heat of the moment, officers can forget that protesters have a right to hurl offensive epithets as well as to videotape and record public encounters. Arrests should be strategic rather than massive. Just like Tampa, St. Petersburg has a dual obligation to public safety and to protect the constitutional rights of those who have come to the RNC as objectors to be heard.