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Showdown looms on GOP convention protest rules

Published Apr. 5, 2012

TAMPA — With protest groups organizing in opposition, the City Council today will consider proposed rules for rallies outside the Republican National Convention, with a few tweaks.

For example, the American Civil Liberties Union said adding a layer of restrictions on signs and banners for the convention would be a "red flag," so the city dropped the idea.

What remains is a sweeping proposal to create a designated protest area near the convention site, plus a much larger "Clean Zone" covering downtown and surrounding areas.

Inside the Clean Zone, virtually anything that could be used as a weapon — with one big exception — would be banned. The city also would establish permit procedures for parades and demonstrations in the Clean Zone, and set a 60-minute time limit on parades and rallies in the zone.

Still, Tampa officials say no amount of tweaking could stop gun owners with concealed weapons permits from bringing their guns to the protests.

That's because the Legislature passed a 2011 law prohibiting cities from enacting any rules of their own on guns, and socking them with big fines if they do.

"We can look into some alternatives, but you may want to call Gov. (Rick) Scott and the Legislature on that," City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr. said Tuesday night during an ACLU forum on protesters' rights at the convention.

At the same forum, Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt described the concealed weapons dilemma as "a very serious issue."

"You can't bring in a water pistol, but you could bring in a concealed firearm that none of the other protesters may know you have," she said. "We are challenged in that particular area from a public safety (perspective), and I think it's something we should work on, long term, in terms of state law."

The Aug. 27-30 convention is expected to draw up to 15,000 protesters, and a pro-Israel group has even suggested creating two protest areas to keep conflict between it and its enemies to a minimum.

With emotions running high, someone with a concealed weapon in the protest area could end up in a confrontation covered by Florida's "stand your ground" law, said Michael L. Seigel, a University of Florida Research Foundation professor of law who did not participate in the forum.

The 2005 law is at the heart of the controversy over a neighborhood watch volunteer's fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

In essence, Seigel said, the law says that if you're not the initial aggressor and another person threatens you with deadly force, then you can resort to deadly force to defend yourself even if you could have retreated safely.

"That makes for a much scarier situation than you would have had otherwise, because you're basically saying to people, you don't have to back away from the fight," said Seigel, a former federal prosecutor who is director of UF's Criminal Justice Center.

But there will be one place where concealed weapons will be banned, and that's inside the convention itself. That's because the Secret Service will control access to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention, and it says nobody but on-duty law enforcement officers will be allowed to take in guns.

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The supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution is what gives the Secret Service the authority to ban guns inside the convention even though Florida law trumps the city's authority to regulate them elsewhere, Seigel said. The supremacy clause makes the Constitution and the national laws made pursuant to it the "supreme law of the land."

Thus, as long as the Secret Service can point to a law giving it the authority to carry out its mission, it can control whether people can carry concealed weapons in to the convention, no matter what Florida law may say.

So could the Secret Service expand the geographic area of its authority and ban concealed weapons throughout the city's Clean Zone, too? Not surprisingly, the Secret Service isn't commenting on that hypothetical question. But theoretically, yes, it could, Seigel said, as long as agents could connect that expansion to the legitimate pursuit of their lawful authority.

Seigel recalls going to a rally for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton at Hillsborough High School where the Secret Service ringed a couple of blocks around the school with school buses and had everyone enter that perimeter through a metal detector.

As a practical matter, however, the agency is not likely to do the same for the Clean Zone, which covers at least 5 square miles.

Chances are low that the Secret Service would get involved with something happening a long distance from the VIPs its agents are assigned to protect, Seigel said.

That leaves Tampa officials looking to the rest of their proposed rules to balance the need to facilitate protests with keeping downtown safe.

The Coalition to March on the RNC, which is working on plans for a 5,000-person march, says it will oppose the rules as excessive.

The Clean Zone and protest area are attempts "to try to control protesters and cage them like animals within downtown," said Jared Hamil, a Tampa spokesman for the coalition.

"They're trying to suppress dissent and trying to suppress our voice," Hamil said.

Not true, said Kirby Rainsberger, an attorney for the Tampa Police Department who spoke to that during the ACLU forum.

"Don't take to the street, those of you who are going to do that, thinking that the officers are your enemy," he said. "They are not."

Tampa plans to train its officers, plus those brought in from other agencies during the convention, that their duty is to uphold the constitution and protect free speech, Rainsberger said. Yes, people who try to burn things or attack officers will be dealt with, he said.

"But if you come here to get a message across, to exercise your First Amendment rights, we are 100 percent on your side," he said, "and we will facilitate that any way we can."

While the city "has gone a long way toward getting a good first shot at an ordinance," it still has work to do, said ACLU of Florida president Michael E. Pheneger.

The 60-minute time limit for demonstrations "really has some problems with it," he said, and many other important logistical details need to be worked out.

But Pheneger also suggested the city think about the unspoken messages it sends both to protesters and to officers. Pheneger spent 30 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel, and he has experience with turning out in heavy protective gear in sweltering heat.

"Someone that looks like Officer Friendly is not going to be viewed as nearly as threatening as somebody who is standing there in a SWAT uniform waiting for something to happen," he said.

"The guy in the SWAT uniform, on the other hand, is really looking for something to happen, because he's wearing this gear because he anticipates that something is going to be a problem," he said. "All of that psychology needs to be addressed."