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Free speech fractured when an easy, elegant solution is pursued

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2003

DUNEDIN -- The city of Dunedin in Pinellas County has a fine, beautiful public library. Built largely with private bequests, it opened on Douglas Avenue in the fall of 1996. The blue-and-pink building has 38,000 square feet and houses 200,000 books, videos, tapes and CDs.

The library also has a Community Meeting Room, which is available for the use of the citizens. This very month, the groups that have booked the room include the Digital Camera Club, a computer class and the Literacy Council of Upper Pinellas.

It is all very polite and intended to be noncontroversial -- which is exactly why controversy has erupted in Dunedin, just as it did last fall in Tarpon Springs.

The policy for both libraries has been to deny the use of their community rooms to any citizens who want them for "political" or "religious" purposes, among other things.

The ban was well-intentioned. Neither city wished to appear to be supporting or endorsing a particular cause or creed.

In Tarpon Springs, the issue burst open last fall when the ban was extended, with delicious irony, to a local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

That group is not exactly a bunch of ex-hippie Commies. Around here, it tends more toward sweet and reasonable retirees. My neighbor in St. Petersburg, a respectable retired minister, is one of its leaders.

Nonetheless, Tarpon Springs declared that Americans United lacked the proper "political neutrality." Apparently the group had invited political candidates to their meetings to discuss issues.

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, Tarpon Springs simply decided to shut down the room. Any groups already booked will have it through Oct. 1. But after that, the room will be used for library purposes only.

Meanwhile, in Dunedin, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of citizens twice asked to use the Community Meeting Room to hold a discussion of "America's Christian heritage." They, too, were denied. Last week they sued Dunedin in federal court.

I talked to John Hubbard, who happens to be the city attorney for both Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.

"Both Dunedin and Tarpon Springs believe that these are funded by all the taxpayers," Hubbard explained. "They are secular facilities. Religious services or partisan political activities in these publicly funded rooms are not appropriate."

As I said, the positions of the two cities are well-intended. Heaven knows that the problem these days is more often people trying to push the government into religion, not trying to keep it out.

Still, if Dunedin fights this case, it probably will lose. The U.S. Supreme Court, especially with its conservative majority, has been crystal clear on exactly this issue.

As for Tarpon Springs, it has taken a legally correct step but an awfully unfortunate one: a public library deciding the safest and easiest course is to keep out the public!

Dunedin and Tarpon Springs were worried about not "establishing" religion. But they established a religious test, anyway: They required citizens, as a condition of using a public forum, to refrain from professing it. They tried to tell citizens they could not assemble in the public forum for politics. What could be more central to the First Amendment?

So a group of citizens book a room and talk about religion -- so what?

So the Democrats meet, and the Republicans meet, and the Libertarians meet, and the Greens meet, and even the Communists meet -- so what?

The practical person asks: What about the Klan, the Nazis, the hate groups? Do we have to let them in, too? And the only possible answer is yes, if you let everybody else in, too.

So Tarpon Springs' decision, to shut out everybody, certainly is understandable. But it is based on a very unhealthy, modern misconception: Free speech is too messy, too impolite and something that needs to be excluded from a "neutral" public forum.

Listen: American citizens have the right to assemble peacefully to talk about whatever the heck they want.

It's supposed to be messy.

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