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Group barred from library to move on

After fighting with Tarpon Springs, an political organization leaves the conference room for kids and heads to Palm Harbor.

CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published April 19, 2004

PALM HARBOR - Nearly two years after the city barred a local political group from meeting at the Tarpon Springs Public Library, the group said last week that it plans to meet in Palm Harbor instead.

When city officials closed the library's meeting room to the Suncoast Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in late 2002, they said it was because the group lacked the "political neutrality" required to use the room.

Months later, the city dropped the ban against Americans United and other political groups after city attorney John Hubbard said courts could view the rule as unconstitutional. As a result, the City Commission voted last year to keep the room open to all comers until next month, when it will be closed.

But Americans United secretary Terry Eckstein said last week that her group's growing numbers and its long battle with the city over the meeting room recently led members to look for a new home. So starting in May, the group will hold its monthly meetings at the Palm Harbor Library instead.

"We're just happy that we have a new home," Eckstein said. "We're hoping that we can reach out to the Palm Harbor community."

The group's move ends an era of controversy that pitted free speech advocates against several city officials and residents who said the meeting room should only be used for library programs.

Last year, city cultural and civic services director Kathleen Monahan told city commissioners that space is at a premium in the library and the room is needed for children's reading programs. In August, commissioners voted to support a plan that will close the room next month. In the future, the room will be used to accommodate some 50 to 400 children expected to participate in library summer programs. Monahan said the room will eventually be used to expand the children's reading room space.

Meanwhile, groups that still want to meet at the library will have access to a smaller conference room, city officials said.

"The city has determined that the Tarpon meeting room will eventually be used for other library purposes," Hubbard said. "So it's good that (Americans United) have found a permanent home for their meetings."

Tarpon Springs officials reconsidered the ban after a Central Florida religious group sued Dunedin when its library adopted a similar policy. The lawsuit charged that the Dunedin policy violated the group's right to free speech.

Dunedin officials settled with the Liberty Counsel of Orlando in April, agreeing to pay nearly $4,000 in legal fees and to change the library policy.

Hubbard, who is also Dunedin's city attorney, helped craft a policy that now allows nonprofit groups to use Dunedin's library meeting room regardless of religious or political affiliation.

Eckstein agrees with that approach. But she said Americans United will probably be more comfortable meeting at the Palm Harbor library in the future.

"A library is by definition a public place of learning and should never bar any group from speaking there unless they were advocating the violent overthrow of the government," Eckstein said.

Palm Harbor Library director Gene Coppola was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

Americans United's first meeting at the Palm Harbor Library, 2330 Nebraska Ave., is scheduled for 2 p.m. May 8.

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