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    Protesters have a place to call home

    FSU's president says the free speech zone keeps protesters' tents from blocking access to buildings.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 29, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Kelly Bohlander pulls back the flap of the tent that has been her home for the past three weeks. Scattered within are a sleeping bag, pillows and Coming of Age in Mississippi, an autobiography of civil rights activist Anne Moody.

    The social work major has been camping out at Florida State University to urge the school not to buy its popular garnet and gold sportswear from overseas sweatshops.

    She's not alone. She is surrounded by other protesters in about 50 tents in this field tucked away behind the library.

    The less-traveled location is the university-approved site for extended protests. Some on campus call it the "First Amendment Zone," and it's causing a bigger stir than the sweatshop protest itself.

    Last month, 12 students were arrested for refusing to move their tents from a more visible location on campus. FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who has enjoyed a reputation as a defender of the First Amendment, approved the arrests.

    The students had pitched their tents in front of the Westcott building, so prominent it appears on FSU memorabilia and houses D'Alemberte's presidential suite.

    FSU is not alone in creating a demonstration zone. The University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University, for example, require demonstrators to protest in a designated area. But other universities, including the University of South Florida and the University of Florida, say they have no such zones, though they've thought about it.

    D'Alemberte has refused to ask prosecutors to drop the charges. He instead offered to help the students keep the misdemeanor trespassing charges off their permanent records. Some students have chosen a pretrial intervention program and others have chosen to face a judge.

    The experience is new for D'Alemberte, who once represented newspapers and television stations. He is credited with getting cameras in Florida courtrooms and keeping reporters out of jail.

    D'Alemberte and campus Police Chief Carey Drayton say the decision to arrest the students came after hours of debate. They worried the tents would block access to the administration building.

    "I read the First Amendment pretty closely and I don't remember it mentioning tents," D'Alemberte said.

    The son of St. Petersburg Times associate editor Martin A. Dyckman was among those arrested. Dyckman's son is a student at a nearby community college. Those arrested accuse the university of violating their First Amendment rights.

    "The Constitution applies everywhere," said Cassie Cross, a senior English major who was arrested.

    Such zones have become commonplace around the country during political conferences and presidential visits.

    Last year, when people were arrested at a rally for President Bush at Legends Field in Tampa, a protest zone had been set up a half-mile away.

    Michael Reich, a spokesman for the University of South Florida, said that school considered a protest zone in 1996 after a preacher disturbed classes with his boisterous proselytizing, but decided against it after faculty opposed the idea.

    "Students were opposed, too, but the faculty particularly didn't like the idea of a free speech zone," Reich said. But the absence of such a zone doesn't mean demonstrators can have the run of the school, Reich said.

    They can't block a building or conduct a classroom sit-in when students are trying to learn. The school would allow a sit-in in the student union if protesters alerted the university beforehand and reserved space for the demonstration, he added.

    "That's the threshold. If they are going to disturb the learning environment" then the university would have to step in, Reich said.

    That's the same distinction D'Alemberte said he is making with the tents.

    "We're not talking about students speaking or carrying around signs," D'Alemberte said.

    In fact, students held an hourlong demonstration in front of Westcott two weeks ago and returned to their tent city without incident. "You can't set up a tent in the president's reception room," D'Alemberte said.

    But he hasn't convinced fellow First Amendment attorney and FSU alum Jon Kaney. Kaney calls D'Alemberte "an icon of the First Amendment" but nonetheless thinks the students should have been allowed to stay.

    "In 1967 we all sat on the Westcott steps for days on end protesting the removal of the word f--- from a literary magazine," Kaney said. "If there's a tent in way of the front doors, move that tent."

    Kaney calls D'Alemberte "a good friend and a I love him to death, but that seems to me like it is aimed at the expression."

    -- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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