Tampa police have worked hard to avoid confrontations with the local group, Occupy Tampa, that is taking part in the nationwide protests against this country's economic conditions. That tolerance has enabled the group to use Curtis Hixon Park as a base of operations, even though the protesters have not obtained city permits to use the downtown park and have violated several ordinances along the way. The downside, though, of being so accommodating is that the police have selectively enforced the law. And with the protests in their third week, relations between the two sides are increasingly strained. Police arrested at least six demonstrators Friday. Mayor Bob Buckhorn should see the need to rewrite city codes to make them better accommodate public protests in advance of Tampa hosting the Republican National Convention next August.
To its credit, Buckhorn's administration already has begun that conversation, and it already has been talking with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Officials are looking at city laws that require groups to apply for permits up to three months in advance, limit the types of activities that may take place in public spaces and require these groups to shoulder huge costs up-front, from posting up to $2 million in insurance to absorbing costs for sanitation, security and other expenses.
The city's permitting code is aimed at big annual events, such as art shows and charity runs. Sponsors of these events plan months ahead. They can afford the initial costs of hosting an event and the long time it takes to receive permission from the bureaucracy. But political protests are often different, particularly around national political conventions. They form at short notice. They often lack a central sponsor. And organizers typically encourage rather than limit public access, leaving attendance at any event almost impossible to predict. That is a problem in Tampa as some city codes are tied to the size of attendance.
City officials already expect that demonstrators will be in full force next year, so it makes sense to prepare now to reduce problems later. While city codes make some exceptions for public protests, ordinances governing the use of city streets and parks largely involve commercial uses. It is too cumbersome and costly for groups to hold events where the sole purpose is the exercise of constitutionally protected speech. And city codes leave too much leeway and authority for city officials to shut down a protest for the vaguest of reasons or legal technicalities.
Buckhorn has a chance to strike the right balance between convention security and free speech rights by updating the codes to better accommodate civic activism. Police and protesters alike deserve to know the ground rules for allowable conduct. One way to avoid serious problems is to reduce tensions from the start. Large vacant parcels of land in Tampa Heights, for example, could act as staging areas for protesters to sleep and eat in a central and secure location in between their protests at the convention sites downtown. Buckhorn has plenty of time to get this right, and the chance to make Tampa a model convention host city. He should consider the current modest protests as a warmup to the greater public scrutiny that Tampa is about to get on the national stage.