Demonstrators beware: you won't be seen or heard

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

May 16, 2012 — This weekend, Chicago will host the NATO summit. In late August, the Republican National Convention will take place in Tampa, Florida; the week after the GOP Convention, Charlotte, North Carolina will host the Democrats. All three gatherings have been designated “National Special Security Events” by the Department of Homeland Security.

“These are not policies based on the premise that free speech is a cherished value that needs to be defended,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. 

All three events are also expected to draw large numbers of demonstrators. Along with local and federal law enforcement agencies, municipal officials in each city are working to impose a variety of restrictions on where, when, and how demonstrators will be able to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. According to legal scholars, one category of restrictions has mushroomed in importance in the last decade. Known as “spatial tactics,” these restrictions literally divide the city into some sections where demonstrators will be allowed to gather and march and others from which they will be barred from doing so. In some cases, the tactics also impose other legal constraints on demonstrators within certain parts of the city, such as prohibiting them from carrying certain items, or changing the process through which they may apply for permits.

The use of spatial tactics — such as exclusion zones and euphemistically-titled “free speech zones” have been the subjects of numerous lawsuits by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Broadly, however, many of these tactics have survived constitutional challenge.

But even if, strictly speaking, some of the tactics are constitutional, many legal scholars, civil libertarians, and good-government advocates argue that they are inconsistent with the proper goal of public policy: welcoming and encouraging free speech.

“These are not policies based on the premise that free speech is a cherished value that needs to be defended,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and the co-chair of the National Lawyer’s Guild Mass Defense Committee. “They start from the assumption that First Amendment activities will be criminal activities and need to be quarantined.”


The restrictions

The restrictions being put in place vary in each city, but they all involve a complicated demarcation of the city into “exclusion zones” — where certain items and activity will be prohibited. In Charlotte and Tampa, they also involve the use of so-called “free speech zones,” or limited areas where people are allowed to demonstrate.

Known as spatial tactics, these restrictions divide the city into some sections where demonstrators will be allowed to gather and march, and others from which they will be barred from doing so.

In all three cities, the first level of spatial restrictions begins with the security perimeter that the United States Secret Service will set up around the site of the event, sometimes called the “hard security zone.” These perimeters are generally fenced off and always very tightly policed. While the Secret Service will not announce the dimensions of the security perimeters for the political conventions until late summer, in the case of the NATO Summit in Chicago, demonstrators will be kept at least two blocks away from the site.

The second level of spatial restriction consists of a “soft” security zone, a much larger area of the city where a significant police presence will be in place; certain items, including such seemingly-innocuous items as lengths of string, will be prohibited, and the normal routine for granting permits will be altered.

In Charlotte, the City Council passed an ordinance in January that allows the City Manager to declare an “extraordinary event” at any time. During such an event and within geographic boundaries determined by the City Manager, a variety of new regulations will go into effect, including a ban on a long list of items, such as backpacks and scarves. The City has already declared five extraordinary events, including Bank of America’s shareholders’ meeting and the Democratic Convention. Tampa is expected to pass a similar measure next month, though it will be limited to the duration of the Republican National Convention. In Chicago, while the city has not legislated any restrictions on items, the Federal Protective Service has designated several downtown blocks as a “Red Zone,” where a militarized police presence will be “highly visible,” according to a department spokesperson.

The “Miami model,” forerunner of the current restrictions

The municipal ordinance currently being considered in Tampa to establish an “Event Zone” specifically for the GOP Convention bears a striking resemblance to the ordinance passed in Charlotte in January that allows the city manager to establish an “Extraordinary Event” zone. Both ordinances ban a wide range of items from being carried by protesters.  Both place specific restrictions on the length, thickness, and weight of poles to be used to carry signs, and restrict permissible pole materials as well. Ironically, water guns and “super soakers” are banned, although actual firearms, regulated by gun-friendly state law, are not. (Charlotte’s restrictions are found in Section 15-313 of Article XIV of the municipal code; Tampa’s are found in Section 7 of the proposed ordinance.)

Officials in both cities acknowledged that the measures are based on previous ordinances passed in other cities hosting large events and political conventions. Though various cities have banned some items in specified places for decades, the model for the current legislation is thought to be an ordinance passed in 2003 in Miami, in preparation for the negotiations of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The list of items banned in that ordinance, along with the tactics used to police the protests there, has since been called the “Miami model.”

“That list has essentially expanded at each large event,” said Kris Hermes of the National Lawyers Guild, who has studied the development of the model. “Every city had added a few things to it over time, so it has become more and more restrictive.”

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