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Proposed street soliciting ban dies

The St. Petersburg City Council declined 5-3 to ban soliciting on public streets Thursday after newspaper vendors, attorneys for the St. Petersburg Times and community activists said that would violate the First Amendment.

"This ordinance, I believe, will put 50 to 53 people out of work," Times attorney Alison Steele told the council, referring to the independent contractors who hawk newspapers at intersections to supplement Social Security or other government benefits. "They got a job hawking newspapers when they could not get any other job."

Many hawkers were in the crowd of 60. Members of the black socialist International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement and affiliated groups took the microphone to decry the ordinance, saying the right to distribute political literature in the street is important.

"I feel it is a serious attack on our freedom of speech," said Penny Hess, of Citizens United for Shared Prosperity, which supports the political agenda of Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela.

The ordinance, proposed by council member Virginia Littrell, would have banned stepping into driving lanes of a street to sell or hand something, such as a newspaper or political leaflet, to a motorist. It also would have banned collecting donations for charities there.

Though police have records of no accidents, Littrell said the city needed the ordinance to keep the public safe.

"It is a safety issue, and we really should not wait until someone gets hurt," she said. "I do not ever want to erode rights of free speech, and I do not believe this ordinance does that."

Littrell and council members James Bennett and Rene Flowers voted for the ordinance.

"In order for people to disseminate information, to sell the paper, they really have to go out into the street to do it," said council member Earnest Williams. "We can't get into over-regulation mode. This is something at this time we do not need to regulate."

"I will not be a party to putting these people out of business," council member Bill Foster said of the hawkers.

Also Thursday, the council:

+ Gave Flowers an extension of her term as council chairwoman after contentious debate and a series of nine 4-4 tie votes for nominees Bennett and Jay Lasita.