Tampa's City Council gets its first crack today at the rules that would govern public assemblies and protests at this summer's Republican National Convention in Tampa. The ordinance proposed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn would in many ways expand the rights the public has under current city rules to gather and demonstrate. But several proposed restrictions are too broad and would violate free speech rights. Others are pointless and impractical, and the council should suggest some changes. Three areas in particular need work:
• Time limits. The proposal would limit any single gathering to one hour, a restriction that would frustrate demonstrations of nearly every size and be impossible to fairly enforce. City attorneys said the intent is to guarantee that all groups have an opportunity to hold an event on public property, and to ensure that police are not endangered by having to remain deployed in the summer heat for excessive periods of time. These are practical considerations. But neither warrants limiting public assemblies to 60 minutes each. By almost ensuring that groups could not have their voices heard, the rule could provoke the very confrontations the city wants to avoid.
• Security zone. The so-called "Clean Zone" where speech and movement would be restricted is far too large. It extends miles from the convention site at the Tampa Bay Times Forum downtown into the neighborhoods of Ybor City, Tampa Heights and West Tampa. Officials say they want to prevent any violence stemming from the demonstrations from spreading into the residential areas. But if a riot erupted, wouldn't the police respond anyway? The city has already said as much, promising that its regular police presence will not be shortchanged by the convention's security demands. So if residents within the "Clean Zone" won't suffer any drop-off in police protection, why include them inside a restrictive security bubble?
• Prohibited acts. The measure forbids people from carrying a range of objects all across the city. It makes sense to keep weapons out of parks and highly charged areas where demonstrations are taking place. But the ordinance would ban everything from bike locks to string in the "Clean Zone," in addition to face masks, which are used by people with respiratory illnesses. The rules also give police the discretion to arrest people for carrying all sorts of objects citywide and far from the convention area. That amounts to a blank check for harassment, especially since the banned items include everything from hair spray to squirt guns.
The city has worked in good faith to balance security with free speech protections. And all sides benefit by having an ordinance in place early so the public knows what to expect and police can be trained. But the measure is too far-reaching. It is imperative the rules be clear and concise, especially since the vast majority of officers working the event will be from outside the Tampa Police Department. The council members should work with the administration on a more balanced approach even if it takes another couple weeks.