Proposed “public gathering” permit faces opposition: public hearing May 21

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Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Ostrow’s (DFL-Ward 1) registration plan for public assemblies during September’s 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul has met opposition from even his Council colleagues, who also happen to be part of the Free Speech Work Group that Ostrow chairs.

Minneapolis City Council’s
PS&RS Committee Meeting
Wednesday, May 21
1:00 p.m.
Minneapolis City Hall
350 S 5th Street, Rm 317

Ostrow’s proposed city ordinance says that “any person or group planning on holding a public assembly of greater than 50 persons in a location that will prevent other pedestrians from using the sidewalks and crosswalks must provide notice of the assembly to City staff and obtain plan approval.” The new law would require registration to be filed 60 days prior to an event in order to be acted upon within 30 days, although no penalties are attached to holding an assembly without an application.

“What we want to accomplish with this is to show the rest of the country that Minneapolis is the kind of place where people can freely express their First Amendment rights, and at the same time preserve order,” said Ostrow.

“The two things in Council Member Ostrow’s proposal that I have a problem with are its “must” language and its time frame for application,” said City Council and Free Speech Work Group member Ralph Remington (DFL-Ward 10).

“I want registering with the City for public gatherings to be completely voluntary,” said Remington. “Right now [as proposed by Ostrow] it isn’t,” Remington said.

“There is concern about the City granting ‘exclusive rights’ to public spaces to groups that register,” said City Council and Free Speech Work Group alternate, Cam Gordon (Green-Ward 2). “I share these concerns, and will push for the voluntary registration not to include any expectation of exclusive use. My argument is bolstered by the City Attorney’s Office, which has clearly indicated that it is improper to give a group exclusive use of a space without a permit that can be either approved or denied by City staff,” Gordon said.

“The answer to the question, ‘Will this ordinance grant a group exclusive rights?’ I think, by and large, is no,” Ostrow said. “If another group wants to have a protest on the same site at the same time, I think registration is the last and best resort to circumvent any trouble,” Ostrow said.

“I may try to move a substitute proposal at some point to make registration totally voluntary,” Gordon said.

Gordon said the next scheduled meeting of the Council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Committee on May 21 may give him such an opportunity. At the committee’s last regular meeting on May 7, the City Attorney was asked to provide an assessment of legal issues regarding voluntary notification, with input from the Free Speech Work Group. Action on Ostrow’s proposal was postponed until the 21st with a public hearing held open at that time for additional comments.

“It very well could come to a vote at that time for sending the proposal to the full Council,” Remington said. “But whatever the public has to say at the meeting, I think most of the council [member’s] minds are made up,” Remington said.

“I certainly hope that there will be action taken at the May 21 committee meeting,” Ostrow said. “The ordinance would then come to a vote at the June 6 meeting of the full Council,” Ostrow said.

“We don’t need more rules,” Gordon said, “just more cooperation between demonstrators and the City. If we ask people to share plans we’ll get more and better information than by passing a law requiring them to tell us.”

“As long as people follow the law I see no problems,” Remington said.
According to a draft acquired by Southside Pride of the alternate registration proposal being prepared by Council Member Gordon, rally registration would only be “encouraged” with “City staff assigned to coordinate such rallies.” Those who voluntarily register could “meet with City staff regarding what services may be available from the City … such as mapping services, safety barriers, amplified sound equipment, and advice regarding compliance with the all laws of the City.”

“Registrants and participants … are expected to obey all laws … including all laws pertaining to the proper permitting and conduct of parades and block parties, use of amplified sound, blocking or impeding traffic on any city street, and laws pertaining to the sidewalks, walkways and the flow of pedestrian traffic,” according to Gordon’s proposal.

Gordon said he may also propose a resolution to define Minneapolis Police Department policies for public assemblies during the convention. Such policies would have police not take enforcement actions during a public assembly unless there is a threat to public safety or failure to comply with reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. Police would be directed to enforce restrictions through voluntary compliance and then seek, as appropriate, enforcement with a minimum level of force. Arrest documentation must be completed soon after the arrest, and individuals who are not placed under custodial arrest must be promptly processed, according to Gordon’s proposal.

“I think there are some mainly ideological differences between Council Member Ostrow’s position and mine and Council Member Gordon’s and even with the mayor’s position,” Remington said. “From talking with the mayor’s staff, I think he would prefer a completely voluntary application process as well,” Remington said.

“Making people register with any authority sets a negative tone for discourse in politics,” Gordon said. “We should be making people happy and comfortable to express their opinions,” Gordon said.