ACLU of Florida Demands Changes in Ordinance That Criminalizes and Denies Free Speech at Public Events

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
June 25, 2007 12:00 am

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ST. PETERSBURG, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today called for changes to a controversial city ordinance that restrains free speech during public events.

The ordinance criminalizes certain free speech behavior and limits the rights of event organizers to promote their own messages by imposing forced “free speech zones” for opponents.

“This ordinance essentially gives the city the power to violate people’s rights on an event-by-event basis,” said Becky Steele, Director of the ACLU of Florida’s West Central Office. “It’s especially unlawful to tell people where they can speak simply based on the viewpoint of the speaker or the content of the speech. The streets and sidewalks of the entire city should be a free speech zone for everyone.”

The ACLU voiced its concerns in a letter sent today to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Charles “Chuck” Harmon. City officials used a new “signing statement” power to limit the free speech rights of not only the opponents of this upcoming weekend’s St. Pete Pride events, but also of the organizers themselves. As a condition of granting the permit, the city required the organizers to dedicate a special area to allow for expression of opposition to the Pride event’s message of tolerance and equality.

In its letter, the ACLU pointed to a Supreme Court ruling allowing the organizers of a St. Patrick’s Day parade to ban gay groups from marching in the parade based on the First Amendment rights of the parade organizers to control the message of the event. Likewise, said the ACLU, events such as this weekend’s Pride parade and street festival are acts of free speech in and of themselves.

Additionally, the St. Pete Pride permit requirement forbids people from carrying signs, banners or using bullhorns along closed-street areas unless they are inside a “designated area.” Not only could this condition unconstitutionally ban speech from public areas near and around the street festival area, it literally criminalizes parade participants if they were to enter the street festival area still carrying their signs or banners.

“Government cannot simply muzzle free speech as it sees fit,” said the ACLU’s Steele. “Impeding one group’s ability to freely express themselves is bad enough — what they are doing now is a double-whammy.”

The ACLU’s letter is online at: www.aclufl.org/pdfs/StPeteLetter.pdf

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