A prominent civil rights nonprofit with a nationwide scope has honed in on Belleair Beach, the coastal Pinellas County city home to fewer than 2,000, with designs on challenging a city ordinance it says restricts residents’ First Amendment rights.
In a letter sent to the city Monday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — commonly known as FIRE — took aim at a city rule that bars “organized” or “political” gatherings of 10 or more people in public spaces. It suppresses residents’ rights to speech, assembly and association, said the foundation, which requested a response by April 10.
“That basically means that every street, every sidewalk, every park is off-limits to political marches, rallies, similar events,” said Aaron Terr, the foundation’s director of public advocacy, in an interview. “Sidewalks, streets and parks are traditional public forums where the government’s ability to regulate speech is at its weakest. These are spaces where Americans have traditionally banded together.”
Belleair Beach City Manager Kyle Riefler said in an email Friday that the ordinance was under review by city attorney Randy Mora. The city has no record of the ordinance being enforced, Riefler said, and he’s told city code enforcement officers to ignore the ordinance until the review is complete.
The ordinance requires any group of 10 or more people “who desire to have a gathering in any city park or playground or other public property” to get a permit from the city manager. It cites a picnic as an example of such a gathering. But it also says the city manager can’t grant a permit “for the conduct of any commercial, political, or organized event.”
There are a few problems with this language, Terr said. The term “organized event” is vague, and it’s unclear why it wouldn’t apply to a picnic, for example. And the more specific aspects of the ordinance seem to directly target protected rights, he said — political speech and the ability to gather in groups.
“You can dig through the case law and find plenty of examples of local governments unconstitutionally restricting speech in forums,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ve seen anything as extreme as banning events of 10 or more people on all public property.”
The rule stems from the city’s 1981 code, but the prohibition on permits for “organized” or political gatherings was added only in 2018. City Council members approved the addition in a 7-0 vote. According to the minutes from that meeting, the change was based on recent requests from wedding planners to have ceremonies in a public park. The minutes did not say how those requests spawned the ban on political activity.
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Terr hadn’t heard of the ordinance being enforced in Belleair Beach, he said. The foundation started looking into it when a reader of the nonprofit’s newsletter sent a tip about it. It marks one of the first forays into municipal policy for the group, which was founded in 1999 to focus on college campuses and expanded its scope last year.
In January, the nonprofit announced a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania county that barred a political candidate from collecting ballot signatures in a public park. Should Belleair Beach ignore the foundation or fail to take the ordinance off the books, Terr said, the nonprofit would likely send another letter first.
“If that fails, or if they respond and hold firm to their position and refuse to amend the ordinance, we’ll weigh our options,” he said. “Nothing is off the table.”