For Largo officials, a lesson in civics

Published May 12, 2007

Nadine Smith's "crime" was giving a piece of paper to a person who asked for it and asking why when a Largo police officer told her she couldn't. After being forced to the ground, she wound up in jail and faced charges of resisting arrest with violence and disturbing an assembly. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office wisely decided not to prosecute. Now Largo police should use this ugly incident as a teaching moment.

Smith, 41, of St. Petersburg, is the soft-spoken executive director of the gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy group Equality Florida. She was among 500 people attending a Feb. 27 public hearing where Largo commissioners decided to fire City Manager Steve Stanton after he announced he planned to change his gender.

Many attendees held a piece of pink paper with the words, "Don't Discriminate." Smith had been handing out the 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheets, but when a man in the crowd asked for one and she handed it over, she drew the attention of police Sgt. Butch Ward, who told her she could not hand out fliers. When she asked the reason, and asked again when she didn't get an explanation, the incident escalated into a rough-looking take-down by four Largo officers that upset or angered some witnesses.

City officials later said they didn't want fliers distributed that night because the papers could fall on the floor and cause someone to slip, and because they believed fliers might lead to a "disruptive" escalation of emotion. They said a city ordinance requires anyone who distributes fliers at City Hall to have city permission, and Smith did not.

Sgt. Ward could have avoided a confrontation by sharing that information with Smith, and the rules about fliers should have been posted. Better yet, city officials should have recognized there was no harm in allowing people to exercise their free speech rights about an important public issue in such a nonthreatening way.

Largo police Chief Lester Aradi should use the Smith case to remind his officers how their own lapses in judgment can escalate tensions in a crowd.