Tampa's revised approach for handling protests and assemblies at this summer's Republican National Convention offers significant improvements over an earlier draft. The proposal relaxes a number of over-the-top security precautions, and it makes it easier and cheaper for groups to gather and march on public property. The measure still needs work; the security perimeter is still too large and law enforcement would still have too much latitude to make arrests in questionable circumstances. But this is a reasonable starting point for the Tampa City Council, which takes up the ordinance on May 3.
City attorneys and the Tampa Police Department have worked in good faith to balance security with the public's constitutional right to freely gather and speak. The revised ordinance going to the council is a practical approach. Unlike the original proposal, the new one waives fees or insurance that groups must post to use the city parks. It also allows marches and gatherings without any permitting at all. The effect is that more groups — especially smaller, underfunded ones — would be able to gather and have their say. Allowing a diversity of opinion is the essence of the First Amendment.
The city would allow groups to hold daylong gatherings in the parks and allow parades for up to 90 minutes. That is certainly more workable than the one-hour time limit under the earlier proposal. The new proposal also creates a lottery system to ensure that groups have a fair chance to secure public space. The city would also work with groups on scheduling in an effort to enable as many organizations as possible to hold rallies. And the new proposal expedites the appeals process for groups that are denied a permit, placing that decision with the mayor's chief of staff. That ups the ante on the city to act evenhandedly.
The new ordinance reduces by half the size of the so-called "Event Zone," where added security and restrictions would be in place. A smaller footprint is appropriate. But the zone still includes far-flung neighborhoods in Hyde Park and north Ybor City. Those areas should not be restricted; they are protected already by existing laws against rioting, vandalism and assault. And the police will be nearby, anyway. Police also would still have too much authority to pre-emptively arrest people for carrying a range of items, from string to squirt guns, if officers suspect harmful intent. That is a recipe for harassment and selective enforcement.
The new ordinance, though, makes clear the ban on carrying potential weapons such as wood applies only on public property; an earlier version would have left the door open to arrests outside home improvement stores. There also is language that underscores the city's duty to enforce the assembly laws in a content-neutral fashion. And there are protections to keep the city from canceling events on a whim.
Council members have an ordinance that mostly works for both the police and the public. The challenge is to correct the few remaining flaws that advance neither security nor protected speech.