GOP convention protest rules are too tight

Published Mar. 29, 2012

The rules Tampa has proposed for regulating protests at this summer's Republican National Convention in many ways expand the public's ability to exercise the right of free speech. Groups of every size would find it easier and cheaper to legally demonstrate on public property. And the city would underscore its duty to ensure that all voices are heard, regardless of the message. But while these proposed changes generally bring the city's outdated restrictions on public gatherings into the modern era, they over-reach in the name of security.

To its credit, the city has worked in good faith with civil rights leaders and downtown-area residents and businesses to balance the unprecedented demands for convention security with the public's right to assemble and speak. And by putting a proposal on the table months before the convention's scheduled start Aug. 27, officials have provided enough time to embrace what makes sense and discard what does not. Tampa's City Council should address several troubling concerns when it takes its first look at the proposed ordinance on Thursday.

The so-called "Clean Zone" where restrictions on speech and movement would take effect is too large. It extends up to 2 miles in some directions from the convention site at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, reaching deep into the northern neighborhoods of Tampa Heights and Ybor City and across the Hillsborough River into West Tampa. It is farfetched to imagine these areas will see much impact from the convention. The city should narrow the Clean Zone footprint to make better use of its limited security and other resources and to minimize the hassle on area residents and businesses.

The one-hour time limit for any public gathering is too restrictive and nearly impossible to fairly enforce. It invites the move-along mentality that protesters and police have used in other cities as a pretext to spark a confrontation. The city can better accomplish the goal of giving competing groups equal time by better managing park space over the four-day event. The city also would outlaw too much in too many parts of town. Carrying slingshots or blasting caps into the crowd is one thing. But the list of items prohibited in the all-encompassing Clean Zone is broad enough to include breathing masks that many use to control a respiratory illness. And the measure would outlaw citywide such innocuous things as squirt guns and hair spray.

City officials say the intent is to keep these devices from harming people or property. That's fine, but the ordinance is written too broadly, and it leaves too much discretion to the police, many of whom will be extra-duty officers drawn from jurisdictions outside Tampa.

The measure creates more opportunities to be seen and heard, and it cuts some of the existing red tape. But it crosses the line in places by seeking to pre-empt almost any conceivable act that could spark a disturbance. The council should work with Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration on a revised approach that better balances rights with security.