2006 St. Petersburg ‘gay’ fest (Courtesy: St.Petersburg Times)
St. Petersburg, Fla., officials are sticking with plans to limit free speech at the city’s homosexual festival this weekend after fighting off complaints they are creating unconstitutional “free speech zones.”
Instead, the city will limit some signs and banners to an area “adjacent to the Permitted Street Closure Area.”
The issue is that generally, court opinions have held “free speech zones” do not meet requirements of the First Amendment. Thus, the city is no longer calling the area a “free speech zone,” although the same zoning restrictions will apply.
According to a permit for the weekend’s events, anyone who wishes to use “amplified sound and/or hand held signs and banners that extend beyond the torso of the person holding them,” and “signs/banners on sticks, or other rigid objects,” will still be relegated to a designated area “adjacent” to the actual event area.
“The forgoing,” states the permit, “is not to be considered a limitation on individuals using any area outside of the Permitted Street Closure to exercise their First Amendment rights in any lawful manner.”
Despite the disclaimer, organizations from both sides of the political debate see the restriction as a clear limitation on freedom of speech and contend the permit is not the only problem; the ordinance allowing for its enforcement is the root issue.
A St. Petersburg spokesman told WND the city’s only concern is for public safety.
At last summer’s festival, preachers from the Biblical Research Center in Tampa trailed the parade and paced the festival calling festival attendees “sodomites,” held signs that declared homosexuality an “abomination,” wore T-shirts and shouted slogans through bullhorns that condemned homosexuality.
Participants in the festival were furious; some pelted the preachers with beads and drinks and nearly incited riots.
In an attempt to curb a repeat clash, the city council met to create a system governing outdoor events and proposed a “free speech zone” at the event, where protesters and demonstrators would be allowed.
The resulting ordinance allows the city to create prior restraints of speech on an event-by-event basis, with virtually no predictable limits. It also criminalizes certain free speech behavior around public events and authorizes the police to enforce breaches of permits – the penalty for such breaches being arrest.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alliance Defense Fund, the ordinance and the permits are far too broad.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sent a letter Monday to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Charles Harmon calling for changes to both the city’s ordinance regarding the “free speech zones” and event permit enforcement.
“This ordinance essentially gives the city the power to violate people’s rights on an event-by-event basis. It’s especially unlawful to tell people where they can speak or can’t, simply based on the viewpoint of the speaker or the content of the speech,” said Rebecca Harrison Steele, director of the ACLU of Florida’s West Central Office.
“The streets and sidewalks of the entire city should be a free speech zone for everyone,” Steele said.
Larry Keffer, a Tampa-based street pastor present at last year’s event, contacted the Alliance Defense Fund for legal counsel after hearing of the proposed restrictions. ADF is a non-profit public interest law firm focused on First Amendment issues.
In a letter sent to the St. Petersburg mayor and police chief, ADF-allied attorney Jonathan Scruggs informed the city it could not “change the character of a traditional public forum simply by creating a parade permit scheme.”
Additionally, stated Scruggs, the protection of public safety should not require prohibition of all hand-held signs and banners and sound amplification equipment.
“The ban is simply too broad,” he said.
The city responded to pressure from all sides with assurances it would revise the permits to resolve all of the First Amendment trespasses.
“I can assure you that we’re not going to have a free speech zone,” Bill Proffitt, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police department, told WND Wednesday, as the permits were being revised. “I don’t think we ever had them.”
“There’s been a whole lot of discussion – the city council passed an ordinance a few months ago that came into play – but the bottom line is that people can protest anywhere they want as long as they do so lawfully,” Proffitt continued.
But when the text of the permit was finalized, City Attorney John Wolfe informed WND it contained only two changes:
- Only during the parade and for a few minutes before and after, demonstrators may use amplified sound and wave banners of any size, even in the permitted street closure area. At other times they are restricted to a single zone.
- Additionally, signs that do not extend beyond the torso and are not mounted to sticks are permitted anywhere on the festival grounds. Other signs are limited to the protest zone.
Keffer, unsatisfied with the changes, believes city officials are submitting to the homosexual agenda.
“I’m disappointed,” he told WND. “The permit sounds essentially the same. The most coveted right we have is the ability to express opinions on public property, and the local government cannot usurp the Constitution.”
WND spoke to the ACLU after the revisions were announced, and officials called the effort a good first step, but said there still are concerns about the process.
“A city simply can’t shut down all of its streets to free speech because of a streets closure permit,” Scruggs concurred. “Religious speech is not second-class speech. Even if what they have to say is offensive, citizens have a right to present their opinions.”
Regardless of the restrictions, Keffer, 45, says he has no plans to confine his protest to a designated area.
“We don’t consider ourselves protesters. We will do whatever we need to do to get the Gospel out,” he said.
Atlanta’s ‘gay’ fest plans also originally included a ‘free speech zone’
As WND reported a week earlier, the city of Atlanta faced a similar question over its pride festival, where a year ago police threatened protesters on public property if they did not put away signs critical of homosexuality.
But Dick Christensen, an urban missionary familiar with the situation in Atlanta, reported to WND that last weekend’s festival was without incident.
“It was a total about-face from last year” and a “victory for Americans everywhere,” he said.
Rev. Billy Ball, another Atlanta Festival missionary, says he will try to “help out the boys in St. Petersburg” this weekend.
“We have free speech zones in America,” said Ball. “There are 50, and they’re called states.”
Related special offers:
Jennifer Carden is a WND editorial assistant.