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Officials consider limits on protests

The ruckus at St. Pete Pride has leaders looking into a "free speech zone."

Published June 29, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Police and city officials are looking into the possibility of a "free speech zone" for protesters at events such as St. Pete Pride, the gay community event that attracted an estimated 50,000 people this past weekend.

The pride event drew about a dozen protesters who shouted "You're a sodomite!" and "You're filthy!" and told people they weren't going to heaven and probably had AIDS.

City Council member Richard Kriseman wrote a letter to police Chief Chuck Harmon and City Attorney John Wolfe saying the city needs to prevent such a scene from happening again.

"It is my understanding that the First Amendment does not dictate that individuals have the right to walk around with a bullhorn shouting messages of hate or holding up signs in such a manner as to block the view of the performer on the stage," he wrote.

Wolfe said, however, that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does protect virtually all speech. However, he added, "if you say words that would tend to incite violence right there, you're not protected."

Because the First Amendment is such a strong guarantee of the right to speak, he said the ability of a government to respond to events like the weekend celebration is limited.

But he did say that in certain cases "we can and we have set up what we call the 'free speech zone.' " That is a zone where people can protest a public event, where protesters are close enough to be seen but confined to a given area so as to prevent conflicts.

Wolfe said he wants to research the law further before reporting back to the council on whether there is a way to "better control the situation without impinging on anybody's First Amendment rights."

Harmon said the protesters contacted the police before the event to let officers know they were coming. He said his understanding was that the protesters planned to stay in one relatively confined area. Instead, they roamed around the event; police followed in an effort to defuse any conflicts.

Both sides praised the officers for helping to keep the calm, and preventing any violence from breaking out.

Harmon also said "the officers did a very good job of protecting everyone given the facts that they were working with," but said he is willing to look at whatever research Wolfe's staff turns up.

He said he would review whether any changes in police tactics should be adopted at the event next year, but said he did not necessarily think there needed to be more officers. A total of 16 officers were assigned to this year's event.

[Last modified June 29, 2006, 05:47:48]

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