Want to speak freely? Better get permission first

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The Minneapolis City Council is moving forward with a free speech ordinance to control protests during the Republican National Convention, despite the objection of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, several protest groups and two city council members.


The Public Safety & Regulatory Services Committee approved the controversial "Voluntary Registration Plan," authored by councilman Paul Ostrow and amended by councilman Ralph Remington in a three-to-two vote last week. The general council will vote on the ordinance June 6.

During the hours of discussion, a standing room only crowd of activists snickered and sneered at entirely Democratic committee's decision to recommend the ordinance that requires groups of 50 or more planning to hold a public assembly near pedestrian sidewalks and crosswalks to notify and obtain approval from city staff if they wish to obtain priority for the space. The city reserves the right to deny or revoke permits at anytime within reason and there is no appeal process for groups whose proposal is rejected.

Under the plan, supported by the Minneapolis Police Department and Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office, the MPD can enforce reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on protesters throughout gatherings, regardless if a group has secured a permit. Police can also order dispersal if necessary.

"Chaos is not necessarily in the interest of free speech," says Ostrow who has worked for over a year developing the plan. "This protects free speech…the strength of the proposal is that it sets forth responsible guidelines for police to address any problems."

When the national spotlight shines on St. Paul, the city council doesn’t want to look unprepared, said Remington. "We don’t want them to say the hicks in Minnesota didn’t even know how to handle an event of this size," he said at the meeting.

Never before has there been a Republican event of such stature in a primarily democratic city, echoed committee chair Don Samuels. Just like Obama has more security detail than any other presidential candidate, this too is an exceptional situation that requires exceptional preparation. From abortion, to war, to capital punishment, groups on both sides and their visceral opponents are likely to come here, he bellowed.

"As we have seen lately even the Olympic torch has brought about violence...We need to be prepared."

But the ACLU and others see it differently. Citizens in attendance called the proposed ordinance, which would still be effective after the convention, a "draconian resolution" that amounts to "toleration surveillance" in a "fascist police state." At a time when Americans have a lot to say about gas prices, the war, health care and the economy, it’s important to remember that people not only have the freedom to speak about these issues in America, but they “should be encouraged to do so,” they argued.

Ostrow’s plan discourages spontaneous protests, since groups that don’t seek approval can be removed from the space if another group has reserved it, argues councilman Cam Gordon.

"I don’t think that’s appropriate. If there can be two groups on the sidewalk coexisting peacefully and nobody is breaking any laws, then both groups should get to stay on the sidewalk."

It's not really that voluntary, railed councilman Gary Schiff who likened Ostrow’s proposal to other shamelessly name policies that do nothing to live up to their moniker. (Think No Child Left Behind and the Clean Air Act). The proposal is considered "voluntary" because there is no criminal punishment for not registering protests with the city.

The two filibustered throughout the May 21 meeting, introducing several amendments to limit the policy's reach such as putting a time limit on the plan, restricting it only to the days around the convention and changing the bill's language to say large groups "are encouraged" to get permits, rather than the standing language that reads large groups, "must obtain" a permit. Both amendments failed with three-to-two votes.

"It just showed their unwillingness to compromise on this issue," says Gordon, who, with the help of Schiff, introduced what they say is a true voluntary proposal at the meeting. Their proposal, broken into two parts (here and here) was never brought to a vote allowing Gordon the opportunity to reintroduce it at the June meeting.

The alternative plan encourages protest groups to communicate with police about intended gatherings, but does not give the city the power to allocate sidewalk space. It also clarifies the roles and responsibility of the police department.

While supportive of Gordon’s proposal, the ACLU would prefer no free speech ordinance be passed.

"We think we should keep free speech as free as possible in the city of Minneapolis," said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota. "The big crowds are not going to even be in Minneapolis anyway. They’re going to be in St. Paul. The only place in this city anybody is going to be is at is the Hyatt."

The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Minneapolis will be the headquarters for the Republican National Committee

"The trouble with Ostrow’s proposal is there is no restraint on police behavior," says Samuelson. "I understand the desire to avoid physical conflict between two opposing groups….but that is exactly what police departments are best at. …The laws already exist. They are already in place. There’s no reason to regulate it anymore."

During the meeting a representative from MPD couldn’t name one time when there had been a situation on Minneapolis sidewalks and crosswalks between protests groups that hadn’t been solved peacefully by police.

"All this is a solution looking for a problem," says Schiff who worked with organizers of the RNC earlier this year to make sure protesters would be allocated sidewalk space. The RNC agreed, but the council still felt the need to create a free speech work group, he said despairingly.

"This is Minneapolis’s 150th anniversary as a city and I’ve never seen the need to require permits for gatherings of 50 people or more. Even city employees picketing city hall during there lunch break because of pay caps would have to get permission from the city under this ordinance."

"Just because the Republicans are coming into town doesn’t mean we have to start acting like them."



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