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Florida city bans ‘political’ events of 10-plus people in all parks, streets, and sidewalks

Protestor in Tampa Bay speak during a protest in front of the Florida Historic Capitol

Tori Lynn Schneider / Tallahassee Democrat / USA TODAY NETWORK

A protestor speaks in front of the Florida Historic Capitol on March 2, 2021. The city of Belleair Beach recently passed an ordinance prohibiting political expression on any public property by groups of 10 or more people.

UPDATE (April 6, 2023): On April 5, the Belleair Beach city attorney responded to FIRE’s letter and said the city has initiated a process to amend the ordinance to eliminate its unconstitutional defects. FIRE applauds the city’s prompt attention to our concerns and looks forward to seeing the ordinance’s amended language to ensure it complies with the First Amendment.

The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. The March on Washington. Public protests against the Vietnam War. Americans have a long tradition of taking to sidewalks, streets, and parks in large numbers to advocate political change. 

But in the City of Belleair Beach, Florida, you can’t even form a group of 10 people to engage in political expression on any public property.

Section 38–87 of the Belleair Beach City Code requires any group of 10 or more people “who desire to have a gathering in any city park or playground or other public property” to obtain a permit from the city. But that same ordinance also prohibits permits “for the conduct of any commercial, political, or organized event by any person, group or organizer.” The relevant part of the code makes doubly clear that this provision applies to all “city-owned property.”

FIRE wrote the city yesterday to explain that the ordinance violates the First Amendment.

If the government had the authority to ban political rallies in public spaces, it would no doubt exercise that authority with unbridled enthusiasm. After all, the government is often the target of protesters’ criticism.

Belleair Beach’s ordinance doesn’t define “political” or “organized.” Because those terms can encompass an extraordinary range of protected speech, the rule is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Any planned activity — including a picnic, which the ordinance mentions as an example of a permissible group activity — could plausibly be described as “organized.”

But the law’s problems run deeper.

Under its terms, there are no public spaces — no streets, no sidewalks, no parks — where political marches, protests, rallies, or similar events are allowed. Yet these are the very places where the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are at their peak. And political speech is at the heart of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court long ago made clear what is practically self-evident: A “blanket exclusion of First Amendment activity from a municipality’s open streets, sidewalks, and parks” is unconstitutional.

It’s no answer that a Belleair Beach resident can still picket on a sidewalk alone or join with a few compatriots to hand out political flyers in a city park. Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. ascending the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech to . . . no more than eight people.

Kevin Gaughen and Dave Kocur

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The First Amendment recognizes that effective advocacy is, in the Supreme Court’s words, “undeniably enhanced by group association.” Large groups grab attention and add power to a message. As we told the city, the freedoms of association and assembly “do not disappear when a group of speakers exceeds nine people,” much less in the areas where these rights have historically been exercised. 

This is the second time FIRE has encountered a ban on political expression in traditional public forums since we expanded off campus last June. In January, we sued another local government for banning a political candidate from collecting petition signatures in a public park. 

Americans today are no less politically active in the nation’s streets and parks than their predecessors were — whether it’s the George Floyd protests, the March for Life, Occupy Wall Street, anti-lockdown protests, or demonstrations outside the Supreme Court. If the government had the authority to ban political rallies in public spaces, it would no doubt exercise that authority with unbridled enthusiasm. After all, the government is often the target of protesters’ criticism.

FIRE will keep watching to ensure Belleair Beach opens up its traditional public forums to a full range of First Amendment activity.

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