Florida Officials Ponder "Free Speech Zones," ACLU Cries Foul

St. Pete’s Pride, Constitution Under Fire

Some Floridian politico and police are bending space – and the Constitution – for this weekend’s St. Pete’s Pride celebration. St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Charles Harmon are considering “free speech zones” within the gay parade. Within these predesignated zones, anti-gay activists are free to air their anti-gay grievances.

While this may sound like a perfectly fine idea, the ordinance will violate the Supreme Court’s 1995 case, Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group. It its ruling, the Court ruled that St. Patrick Parade organizers can ban gays because a parade constitutes an expression of free speech. Gays, then, cannot interfere with the organizers’ vision.

Baker and Harmon, however, chose to ignore that ruling when they endorsed a new city ordinance allowing for unregulated “free speech zones”. These zones will be determined on an event-to-event basis. In this particular case, not only would homophobes be allowed to bark their objections in the midst of the fag’s festivities, gays can be arrested for expressing their opinion outside predetermined districts.

Constitutional defenders ACLU Florida explain:

Within the “street closure area,” there can be no hand held signs, hand held banners or bullhorns unless within a “designated area.” Further, St. Pete Pride must designate one area within the “permit closure area” where (a) the organizers can use banners, signs and amplified sound, and a separate area where (b) “those wishing to excercise their first amendment right to free speech” can use amplified sound and banners.”

Thus, not only do the gay priders have to quell their rights to accommodate their enemies, their enemies are restricted to their own areas. Taken together, the ordinance effectively negates the city’s Constitution-given free speech space. ACLU demands Baker and Harmon stop the unconstitutional insanity:

…The City of St. Petersburg should drop the notion of “free speech zones.” The entire City should be a free speech zone. The City should clarify that even organizers have the right to control the message allowed within the permitted area… Within the [pride] area, St. Pete Pride should be allowed to promote its message, and only its message. But outside that narrow area, protesters using the traditional public fora of sidewalks and public spaces, including those along the parade route, should be allowed to speak freely.

While Baker and Harmon may think they’re keeping things civil, ACLU Florida’s Director Becky Steele sees a bit of illegal double penetration,

This ordinance essentially gives the City the power to violate people’s rights on an event-by-event basis. It’s especially unlawful to tell people where they can speak or can’t, 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. Government cannot simply muzzle free speech as it sees fit. Impeding one group’s ability to freely express themselves is bad enough – what they are doing now is a double-whammy.

The ordinance may be a double whammy in another sense, too. Not only will officials violate free speech laws, they may violate freedom of religious expression, as well.

…Because the persons opposing the St. Pete Pride event feel compelled by their religion to speak, the ordinance as applied may violate not only the speakers’ First Amendment free speech rights, it could also violate their First Amendment rights of Free Exercise of Religion.

It’s shitty the ACLU has to defend those who misread the Bible for their anti-gay crusades, but it must be done. If not, we’ll be out of a constitution. And nobody wants that. Except Baker and Harmon, of course…

Read ACLU Florida’s letter summary here. If you’re okay with downloading a pdf, read their entire statement.