ACLU forum tackles fine line between public safety and constitutionality in advance of RNC in Tampa

04/04/12 Janelle Irwin
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Plans to beef up security and regulate crowds during the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August are well underway. Local leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union want to make sure preparations don’t trample First Amendment rights. At a forum at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa last night a panel of experts answered questions about some of the city’s proposed plans in front of a crowd of 180 people.

Tampa city attorneys and Mayor Bob Buckhorn are proposing a temporary ordinance that would establish a “clean zone” for the duration of the Republican National Convention. The area covers all of downtown and extends into some nearby areas of the city. Among other things, the ordinance would require groups of more than 50 protesters to obtain a permit and limit their demonstration to one hour. Tampa city attorney Jim Shimberg said the proposed ordinance was evaluated for constitutionality by comparing it to similar measures like Super Bowls.

“The purpose of that was two fold. One was that some of the police officers during that time frame will be wearing heavy equipment and would not be able to stand out in the August heat for very long. The second issue is, I don’t know how many of you went to the mayor’s State of the City Address this morning, but it was early April and it was in the boiling hot sun. Luckily it didn’t last an hour, but I don’t know how you’d be able to go much longer. We also try to create as many spots as possible for groups to be able to participate either in the parades or in the public gatherings. So, that was based on the evidence that we determined. That was we thought was the appropriate time limit. Obviously that’s up for city council consideration.”

Stetson Law professor Louis Virelli said that even though the First Amendment seems to provide absolute freedoms of speech and assembly, the courts have interpreted limitations based on time, place and manner.

“Government is allowed to create reasonable restrictions which are narrowly tailored to a significant government interest that leave open ample alternative channels for speech. That is a lot of language. We will talk about it I’m sure and deconstruct it over the time that we’re here. But that is the idea. Reasonable regulations narrowly tailored or directed at or closely related to an important government interest like health and safety that leave open alternative channels that are not prohibitive of the ultimate right to express ones views.” President of the ACLU of Florida, Mike Pheneger said he understands that sometimes speech needs to be restricted for public safety purposes - he’s a retired Colonel in the Army. But he’s concerned that effort could go too far.

“Governments tend to be overly sensitive in many cases and come down too often on the side of public safety and health and sometimes speech gets restricted simply because the law allows them to do it. And I think that’s the thing that’s really important to recognize. We don’t really want to endow police officials and others in the city with too much discretion in the control of the exercise of the free amendment by the citizens who come here to protest or by the Republicans who come here to nominate a president.”

Maintaining public safety under the proposed temporary city ordinance wouldn’t protect everyone. A member of the audience asked about gas masks which aren’t allowed inside the clean zone. And the ACLU’s John Dingfelder called attention to the fact that people couldn’t bring squirt guns into the clean zone, but they could bring a gun if they had a concealed weapons permit. But Kirby Rainsberger who is a senior assistant attorney for the Tampa police department said he was disheartened by all the comments that seemed to make police officers out to be the bad guys.

“We intend to facilitate, to the extent that you will let us, to the extent that the protesters will let us – we intend to facilitate your right to protest; to get your message across if you will let us. People who come here and intend to come here and burn the city and burn police cars and attack police officers, those people we are going to have to deal with in a different fashion. But if you come here to get a message across, to exercise your first amendment rights, we are 100% on your side and we will facilitate that in any way that we can.”

Tampa was awarded a $50 million grant from the federal government to use for security efforts. Some of that has been allocated to armored cars, surveillance cameras and even bicycles. But most of it will be used on bringing in extra law enforcement from other communities. With so many extra people in the city, an influx of arrests is expected. Hillsborough County public defender Julianne Holt said she will have 120 lawyers on call 24-7 and a second court to make sure those arrested can be quickly processed.

“We will have a senior lawyer including myself on call for law enforcement as well as – what that means is – the on call person, if someone asks for an attorney out at the scene, we are going to offer our services along with any of the private lawyers that are willing to do that with us and we will be on call and we will report out to the scene if we can get there. But at a minimum we will be telephonically available. We will talk to people.”

One concern is that protesters arrested will be released with a stipulation that they can’t return to the clean zone. Holt said her department is taking steps to make sure there’s a game plan if that happens.

“I can tell you that our office has prepared motions for emergency purposes should judges impose that particular restriction and we are prepared to take the emergency action to try and ensure that someone is not restricted from going into that area. And I think that everyone understands that what we are trying to do is – we think that they’re might be some altercations. We think that there might be some arrests, but we don’t want to restrict someone for seven days.”

Holt did say that process could take two to three days to complete which could keep some protesters away from the action long enough to miss it.

The first hearing of the ordinance is Thursday at Tampa City Council. Occupy Tampa and other groups plan to protest before the meeting and are expected to speak during public comment. Three Council members, Mary Mulhern, Harry Cohen and Lisa Montelione attended the ACLU forum.

The ACLU has information available to protesters, reporters and anyone who might stumble into the RNC chaos. That information can be found on their website.

Here's a photo gallery.

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