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Free speech rules, with a few limits

St. Pete Pride parade and festival will go on with protesters nearby.

Published June 29, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - As for the rules governing this weekend's St. Pete Pride festival, one thing is clear: No one will be thrilled.

Not Larry Keffer, the street preacher who angered participants last year by preaching against homosexuality and says the city is superseding his right to expression. Not Jeff Klein, the festival coordinator, who says he shouldn't have to listen to what he views as insulting event crashers.

First Amendment law provides only fuzzy guidance to a city trying to ensure the free speech rights of two fiercely opposed groups.

That's the nature of First Amendment disputes, says John Wolfe, the city's attorney who has worked for weeks to come up with a set of rules that might be fair to everyone.

"It's always difficult balancing the first Amendment rights of individuals with differing viewpoints, " Wolfe said. "There's no way to completely satisfy everyone."

Earlier this year, the city decided to restrict speech at St. Pete Pride because of disruptive protests at last year's event. But the rules drew criticism from legal groups and complaints they were too vague.

Wednesday, the city issued a revised permit. It won't restrict the use of signs or bullhorns for the parade, which starts at 10 a.m., but it gives police the right to arrest anyone who disrupts the event.

For the following street festival, large signs and sound amplification will be prohibited in the closed-off area.

The permit carves out two areas directly north and south of Central Avenue on 27th Street that technically are not part of the event where protesters can use any means of expression they'd be afforded in public spaces.

Keffer said he's disappointed in the city's decision. He said all speech on public property should be protected and that the city is letting its favoritism for St. Pete Pride override its duty to protect First Amendment rights.

"This is a parade to celebrate diversity, but they're only celebrating diversity for the people who agree with them, " Keffer said. "I find that very hypocritical."

But Klein, the street festival coordinator, said the city could do more to limit hateful speech.

"You shouldn't be limited on what you're able to say, but that doesn't mean that everybody has to listen to it, " Klein said.

David Hudson, a scholar for the First Amendment Center in Nashville, said courts have upheld restrictions on speech that don't discriminate based on what's said, including bans on loud sound amplification and on the time, place and manner of speech.

But he said he sees a disturbing trend on the limits.

"More government officials are looking for ways to deal with messy expression, " Hudson said. "One of the ways that a lot of people have tried to come up with is zoning speech."

Sgt. Charlie Burnette, who runs special events for the St. Petersburg Police Department, said protest zones are nothing new to the city. They were used for the vice presidential debate in 1996.

Meeting a test for limiting free speech

Jonathan Scruggs, litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund in Memphis, Tenn., who wrote to the city on the issue, said the permit restrictions are unconstitutional because they fail to meet the first test of limiting speech: an important government purpose.

The city shouldn't silence protesters to avoid fights, but rather arrest those who start them.

"Speech that might offend people can't be suppressed for that reason, " Scruggs said. "It's that very type of speech that deserves protection."

But parade organizers have free speech rights as well. Those rights are partly derived from a case that allowed discrimination against gay people.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the organizers of a St. Patrick's Day parade in Boston could exclude a gay and lesbian group from participating.

The court said the government couldn't force organizers to include the group because they have a First Amendment right to control the message of the event, including a right not to express a view they disagree with.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tampa cited this case in a letter to the city that contested the first permit. It said that by forcing St. Pete Pride to set aside a part of the designated event area for protesters, it was forcing alternative views on them.

"It shouldn't be the city dictating who gets to speak when and where, " said Rebecca Steele, an attorney with the ACLU, adding she was pleased that the revised permit technically eliminates the protest zones.

Questions arise over ordinance's creation

Critics were also alarmed at the way the rules were made.

Limiting speech in the permit means there's little public oversight, as there would be if the limits were hammered out before the City Council.

The City Council passed an ordinance earlier this month that allowed the conditions of a permit to be enforced with arrest or citations.

"It's an extremely creepy ordinance, " said Steele. "It doesn't come out and oppress free speech in an open way."

The ACLU and the Alliance Defense Fund said some City Council members' comments on the protesters, such as calling them "hateful, " suggested they were targeting Keffer and his supporters.

One reason why there's a high expectation for free speech at St. Pete Pride is because the public can attend the festival for free. The courts have said that where the public goes, so goes speech.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at 727 892-2374 or

Fast Facts:

Protest strategy

Police, attorneys and St. Pete Pride organizers have come up with a plan to ensure safety at this weekend's parade and festival, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday.

- Signs and bullhorns are allowed for the parade, as long as they don't disrupt the event.

- Ten minutes after the parade's end, new restrictions kick in: no bullhorns and large signs in the closed-off area.

- On 27th Street to the north and south of Central Avenue, protesters can use signs and bullhorns.

- St. Pete Pride will have more than a dozen safety volunteers.

- Larry Keffer, the street preacher who is leading protests, said he expects more than 10 preachers.

[Last modified June 28, 2007, 23:41:35]

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