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St. Petersburg tries free speech zones

ST. PETERSBURG – Sidewalks along Central Avenue were full of laughter and free of protest this year at the St. Pete Pride Street Fair. St. Petersburg required protestors and activists to limit disruptive speech to the “free speech zone,” located between 28th and 27th st, following the parade.

Led by Susan Stanton, former Largo city manager, a train of supporters carried a rainbow over their heads in celebration of Gay Pride month. However, this year’s parade was different than the last.

Many, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, have been questioning whether or not a restriction on free speech in a traditional public forum violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. Customarily, streets, parks and other public places have been regarded as open to public discourse.

Last Monday, the ACLU sent a letter to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Charles Harmon regarding the “free speech zones.” The press release from the ACLU said the zones placed “prior restraints of speech, on an event-by-event basis with virtually no predictable limits.”

The ACLU cited Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group, a Supreme Court case that ruled that organizers of a St. Patrick’s Day parade were allowed to ban gay groups from marching in their parade. The case also argued that event organizers have the right to promote their message and no other.

Kayleigh Pinkett, a USF education major, said the free speech zones worked well. “I’ve just learned to accept their opinion for what it is, an opinion,” she said. “It didn’t stop me from having the best day ever, in the least.”

The free speech zone was thick with expression. Among many of the signs that protestors and supporters created, a couple stood out. “Men with men, women with women is an abomination,” read one sign held by a member of a Baptist church who was urging gay sinners to repent. Members of Lakewood United Church of Christ carried a banner during the parade that read, “We don’t tolerate diversity, we celebrate it!”

In response to complaints by the ACLU, the City of St. Petersburg revised the ordinance on Wednesday, just days before the parade. The new ordinance would allow signs and noisemakers outside of the free speech zones during the parade, but not before or after.

Still, most protestors abided by the rules and stayed in the free speech zone. Many protestors simply held their signs without speaking.

While attendees of the street festival expressed themselves vocally in the free speech zone, yards away others were expressing themselves on the dance floor.

Pinkett didn’t let the signs ruin her fun. “I didn’t protest back at them, really,” she said. “I told my friend that I wished they would stop shouting because I couldn’t dance to the music over their racket.”

Although Dr. Sara Crawley, professor of women’s studies at USF, is not a legal scholar, she thinks the free speech zones are necessary.

“If creating “speech zones” prevents protestors from effectively pre-empting the permitted event (by disrupting with megaphones, etc.), then it serves the purpose of allowing the organized event to happen while still allowing free speech,” she said. “It seems like a fair compromise.”

The St. Petersburg Police Department had one lieutenant, three sergeants and 19 officers present during the event.

According to Pinellas County Arrest records, five people from Georgia were arrested for violation of the city ordinance. The quartet of protestors carrying signs outside of the free speech zone were released on a $100 bond that evening.

Outside of the free speech zone, people enjoyed food, entertainment and each other’s company. Few were letting a little controversy affect their parade.

“It was my first year attending St. Pete Pride and I was having too much fun just being there, that I really just took a look and walked right by,” said Pinkett. “I’ve heard and seen it all before.”