RNC protest rules gain Tampa City Council approval

Published May 18, 2012

TAMPA — The City Council on Thursday approved a ban on most weapons and fast-track permitting for protests outside the Republican National Convention.

City officials say the "Event Zone" ordinance will give police the tools to ensure that demonstrations remain safe and secure.

"We are not trampling on rights," council member Mike Suarez said, just trying to balance public safety and the First Amendment rights of the 15,000 demonstrators expected at the convention.

Civil libertarians and protest group leaders counter that the city's rules are too sweeping and bureaucratic, cover too much territory and suppress free speech by criminalizing a wide range of everyday objects and behaviors.

"If I want to march down a sidewalk or in a public park, either by myself or with 500 of my closest friends, I need not ask permission for this, nor will I ever," said Amos Miers of the Free Speech Project. "The Event Zone is a police state, and it will cause the very problems you are looking to avoid."

American Civil Liberties Union of Florida president Michael E. Pheneger said the ordinance is flawed, but acknowledged it would pass.

As a result, he said, the city's success or failure in protecting free speech of demonstrators will depend on the intelligence, flexibility and judgment of the police who will interpret and enforce the new rules.

Because many demonstrators doubt the city's sincerity, Pheneger suggested Tampa officials take steps to improve relations between police and protesters.

"Why not establish a host committee to welcome demonstrators?" he asked. Why not, he wondered, have city leaders visit groups when they arrive, name a city liaison to them, provide water and shade, avoid creating fenced-in spaces where demonstrators feel caged and make sure that every officer understands that protesters are not enemies?

The vote was 4-2, with Mary Mulhern and Yvonne Yolie Capin in dissent. Chairman Charlie Miranda said he supported the rules, but had to leave the meeting before the vote.

The Event Zone ordinance will create a designated protest area open to everyone, no permit necessary, 24 hours a day near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the Aug. 27-30 convention.

It also will establish an official parade route, though the city has yet to identify the protest area and parade route. Court cases have established that protesters must be allowed close enough to be seen and heard by conventioneers.

In Tampa, that is complicated by the fact that the city is required by its contract with the convention to guarantee parking for 300 charter buses as close as possible to the Times Forum. In addition, the city's contract gives the convention first dibs on using nine downtown parks, including Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Lykes Gaslight Square Park.

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City officials have said police plan to distribute leaflets with details on the protest rules, the designated protest area, the parade route, plus key telephone numbers and perhaps information on Tampa restaurants and other points of interest.

City officials also have discussed providing water, portable toilets and maybe a stage and microphone at the protest area, which officially will be known as the "public viewing area."

"We want to make this work," City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. said.

The ordinance also will ban weapons, except for concealed firearms carried with a permit, in the Event Zone, which covers downtown north to Interstate 275 and Interstate 4, Ybor City, the northern part of Harbour Island and an area across the Hillsborough River that includes the University of Tampa.

City officials wanted to restrict the carrying of concealed firearms inside the Event Zone, but a 2011 Florida law prohibits them from passing any local regulation of guns or ammunition.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Bob Buckhorn asked Gov. Rick Scott to issue an executive order that would allow the city to ban concealed firearms in the zone. Within hours, Scott rejected the idea as excessive and an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment.

As a result, city officials complain that they will ban water pistols — which protesters in other cities have filled with urine — but cannot prohibit real firearms carried with a concealed weapons permit.

On Thursday, the dilemma still rankled council members.

"It is almost unnerving to think that the governor and the Legislature have put us in this position," Capin said.

Capin said she voted no because she thinks the Event Zone is too big. Mulhern gave several reasons, including the city's inability to ban concealed weapons in the zone.

"Do I feel safer because of the restrictions in this ordinance during that convention?" she asked. "Honestly, I don't."

After the vote on the ordinance, council members decided to send letters to state and federal officials asking for an expansion of the Secret Service's authority to ban firearms inside the convention to neighboring areas as well. The Secret Service has not addressed the idea publicly, but Buckhorn says there's no chance of it happening.

Beyond the weapons ban, the temporary ordinance makes it cheaper, easier and faster for groups to get permits to hold large assemblies on city property during the RNC.

Inside the Event Zone, groups of 50 or more can apply for an all-day permit for parks. Originally, the city proposed a 60-minute time limit for those assemblies. Similarly, the time limit for marches on the parade route has grown from 60 to 90 minutes.

In a change presented Thursday, city attorneys said groups also will be able to apply for permits at perhaps four or five parks outside the Event Zone. That, said Assistant City Attorney Mauricio Rodriguez, will give large groups more options, such as Al Lopez Park, for demonstrations.