First Amendment – Public Protesting has limits

The lead-up to the RNC in St. Paul demonstrates how First Amendment rights aren’t always absolute.

Protests have long been a staple of free speech, but such demonstrations are not entirely free of restrictions.

From Sept. 1 though Sept. 4, an estimated 45,000 people will flock to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. While officials across the Twin Cities are preparing, so are various activists and organizations.

The City of St. Paul requires permits for public gatherings, including protests, of more than 25 people. Fees vary depending on the location and size of the assembly.

These permits aren’t anything new, St. Paul Police Department spokesman Tom Walsh said, adding that the city isn’t treating RNC gatherings any differently than others.

“We issue permits for every special event,” Walsh said. “Safety is our first concern.”

Minneapolis issues permits to groups that plan to block off streets, but is considering creating an ordinance similar to St. Paul’s.

The U.S. Supreme Court has created guidelines for permitting ordinances in the past, said University associate law professor Heidi Kitrosser, who specializes in First Amendment law.

Cities should leave officials as little discretion as possible to deny and approve permit requests, and allow protest organizers time to appeal a given permit, she said.

Protest permit ordinances are not considered automatically problematic, but are suspect, Kitrosser added.

“It’s not considered intrinsically abusive,” she said. “But it can be abused.”

Ward 2 Minneapolis Councilman Cam Gordon, whose ward includes the University, is a member of the Free Speech Work Group, created to address freedom of speech and assembly during the RNC.

Gordon said he favors voluntary, rather than mandatory, registration.

It’d be useful for protesters and the city to communicate so traffic and emergency response systems could be coordinated during the RNC, he said.

University junior Abdul Magba-Kamara, president of College Republicans, said he thinks police should be able to step in if protesters get out of hand during the RNC, but he doesn’t think requiring permits is the answer.

“I personally think that having to apply for permits infringes on First Amendment rights,” he said. “I can see their (law enforcement’s) point, but I don’t think that it’s legitimate.”

Last week, the Coalition to March on the RNC filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Paul, alleging permit denial.

The ACLU of Minnesota is representing the group. Executive Director Chuck Samuelson said the city issued a “permit-like document,” which does not include specifics, such as where the group will be able to march.

“It’s not a permit at all,” he said.

The suit alleges the city violated its own permit rules by not issuing a valid permit within a certain amount of time, he said. Also, he said the city is essentially granting permits to Republicans to hold the convention and not protesters, calling it a viewpoint-based restriction.

Walsh said the city has issued the coalition a valid permit, adding that the city can’t give the group a more specific permit at this time.

“We have gone out of our way and made every effort, not only to be fair, but to give as much information as we can,” Walsh said.

The group is concerned it will experience the same problems as groups that have protested at previous political national conventions, said Coalition to March on the RNC spokeswoman Meredith Aby.

In 2004, New York City and Boston dragged their feet during the permitting process, she said.

“We’re really concerned that we’re going to be dealt the same deck of cards that people were dealt in Boston,” Aby said, referring the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The group is afraid delays in the permitting process could limit the group’s planning time and options for legal recourse, Aby said.

Walsh said the city has assured the group it will get its parade route by May 31.