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Gainesville councilman wants looser assembly rules

POSTED: April 7, 2009 11:33 p.m.

At least one Gainesville city councilman wants the city to reconsider its regulation of public demonstrations.

Council members say the ordinances were strengthened years ago to discourage Ku Klux Klan activities in Gainesville, but Councilman George Wangemann says now the ordinance edges close to the constitutional line. He has asked City Manager Kip Padgett to consider revising the ordinance.

"It could be challenged as that (unconstitutional), at least," Wangemann said. "There’s just so many hoops you have to jump through. There’s so many rules and regulations."

The City Council adopted a more stringent picketing policy in September 1992 because it was having problems with the Ku Klux Klan, Wangemann said.

"We really prefer them (the Ku Klux Klan) not to march, but since they have a constitutional right to march we laid down some pretty strict rules and regulations," Wangemann said.

The ordinances now require picketers to first get a permit from the police department and outline when and where demonstrations can occur. The rules relegate picketers to the five feet of the sidewalk closest to the curb and keeps protests from occurring within so many feet of schools, hospitals or nursing homes.

The rules also forbid children younger than 16 to miss school to participate in a protest unless the child has the school’s permission and forbids their signs from having metal or wood attached to them.

At a recent meeting of the Hall County Republican Party that Wangemann was attending, former GOP Chairman Paul Stanley complained that Gainesville’s rules were too stringent, Wangemann said.

"These regulations, in my opinion, are excessive," Stanley told The Times on Monday. "They regulate where you can go, and almost all the places where you can go require you to pay someone for that space."

Stanley said requiring permits for the use of bullhorns and forbidding people to attach wooden or metal handles to their signs makes it difficult for people to meet the city’s regulations.

"My complaint is all of these regulations, just like the inordinate number of business regulations in Gainesville and overlapping regulations and overlapping regulatory bodies, makes it so that a regular, everyday person has a very difficult time figuring out what they have to do," Stanley said. "The harder it is to figure it out, the law-abiding people are just not going to do it."

But Police Chief Frank Hooper said he never gets complaints about the permitting process involved in having rallies and protests.

In 2008, the police department issued two permits for stationary rallies, one picketing permit, four parade permits and 83 permits for the use of an amplifying device, Hooper said.

The rule forbidding wood or metal attachments on hand-held signs is a safety concern, Hooper said.

"We don’t want a bunch of people out there with sticks," he said.

Stanley also takes issue with the fact that picketers are required to give advanced notice of rallies or protests, but the city’s ordinances does not specify a time in which the city must respond.

"You may not know until the day of your event whether it’s going to be approved or not," said Stanley. "If it’s not approved and you show up then everybody goes to jail."

Hooper said he usually is able to approve permit requests within 24 hours. The police department takes two or three days at most to respond to picket or rally permit requests, he said.

Stanley said he believes that most people who would consider having an assembly are turned off by the number of permits required to hold it. He said the ordinances may not be unconstitutional, but do not follow the spirit of the First Amendment protection of free speech.

Wangemann agrees with Stanley. At a recent City Council meeting, Wangemann suggested that city officials consider rescinding or changing the restrictive policy to make it easier for people to peaceably assemble.

Wangemann’s request does not seem to have picked up steam with other council members since then, however. Mayor Myrtle Figueras said there have been no other discussions between council members on the issue since Wangemann mentioned it last month.

Figueras and Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick say they have never heard any complaints about the current process.

"I don’t know of any that have been turned down," Hamrick said.

Padgett said he has yet to get with Hooper and City Attorney James E. "Bubba" Palmour on the issue, but that it likely will be discussed at a work session in May.



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