Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn reasonably balanced free speech and public order with the protest zones he unveiled this week for this summer's Republican National Convention. The zones will put protesters within earshot of the main event at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, thus protecting their right to be heard, and help ensure that downtown can operate as normally as possible during the weeklong event in August. But the real issue is not where the protests will go but how well Tampa will manage them.
The city will establish three protest areas north of the Times Forum, totaling more than 7 acres, more than what was made available at either national political convention in 2008. At their closest point, the zones will be one block from the Times Forum. The city also will create a parade route on the south side that will allow demonstrators to wind through nearly a mile of downtown on their way to the protest zones.
These areas are several blocks east of the heart of downtown, and they cut through vacant lots and under the freeway. But they provide plenty of open space to accommodate many groups of varying sizes. Spectators, too, would have it easier accessing the parade and protest zones from the east rather than the west side of downtown, which will be heavily congested with convention traffic in addition to the everyday downtown bustle. As a practical matter, protesters will not be able to get through the Secret Service security zone on the western side, anyway. And the zones are not the only option; nothing will prevent groups from demonstrating in other public spaces downtown, such as on the sidewalks.
The zones, and the city's new permitting rules for convention demonstrators, at least provide on paper the opportunity for all groups to convey their messages freely and to a mass audience. But the challenge will still fall to individual police commanders on the scene to protect the right of peaceful assembly. The city is taking a responsible approach by providing portable toilets, water stations and a sound stage along the protest areas. These facilities need to be adequate, for security reasons if nothing else. The city also needs to ensure that people are not penned in by fencing or police cordons to the point that peaceful demonstrators are held hostage. To its credit, the Tampa Police Department has acted in good faith throughout this long planning process to reach out to the public, demonstrators and downtown property owners in an attempt to build the lines of communication. That strategy needs to continue, for the sake of public order, civil rights and the city's image on the global stage.