Atlanta Council Wants Free Speech Zones to Restrict Public Protests

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Photograph by Jonathan Springston

Photograph by Jonathan Springston

(APN) ATLANTA –“We might as well spit on the graves of Dr. King and Mrs. King if we allow the right of the citizens to assemble to be curtailed!” Rev. Timothy MacDonald, of the First Iconium Baptist Church, said, as about 50 protesters gathered in front of Atlanta City Hall for a press conference today at 1pm.

Atlanta City Council Member Jim Maddox has proposed an explosive bill which would establish procedures for a “Free Speech Zone” (FSZ), for any Assembly or Outdoor Festival in Atlanta public space where counter-protesters are expected.

“Lawyers could have told [the City Council] this law is unconstitutional,” Gerry Weber, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia, said in his remarks. “This law is riddled with so many problems, it’s really a Law Professor’s exam.”

Who is a counterprotester? Event Organizers get to decide. “This decision may be based upon any reason,” reads Section H of the bill, for a proposed new section, 142-43, of the Atlanta Code of Ordinances.

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Photograph by Jonathan Springston

The City would empower Event Organizers to redirect citizens wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights to the FSZ, with the police there to back them up under threat of arrest, according to Sections G, H, I, and J.

The City would be able to determine the size and location of the FSZ, according to Sections E and F.

The FSZ could be applied for by the Event Organizers, under Section A, or created by the City itself, under Section E.

The City can also change the date of an Assembly or Outdoor Festival itself, if it determines the necessary FSZ is not logistically feasible, under Section E: “The City shall have the right to alter the location or time of the requested Outdoor Event to accommodate the logistics and public safety concerns associated with the FSZ request.” [abbreviation added for brevity]

RJ Thompson of the Human Rights Network says the bill would be used as an excuse by the City to deny more protests.

The bill also requires Event Organizers to issue badges to all event attendees who they deem are worthy of exercising their First Amendment rights, according to Section G: “An Outdoor Festival Host… shall be responsible for determining… who is authorized to exercise his/her First Amendment rights as part of the Outdoor Festival that day, and shall issue such people a badge to be worn indicating such authorization.”

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Photograph by Jonathan Springston

Moreover, Section H says even if an FSZ is not obtained, Event Organizers would still have the right to prevent the free speech of citizens they choose to not allow in their event. This particular Section applies not just to events with FSZ’s, but any public event in the future.

“This is Atlanta, home of the Civil Rights Movement, home of Dr. King. We all know Atlanta has a great number of corporate interests who don’t want to hear people speak truth to power,” State Sen. Vincent Fort said.

Citizens who attempt to protest outside of the FSZ could be arrested, should organizers of a permitted event tell police they do not belong at the event and should be forced into the FSZ. Police are instructed in the proposed law to give citizens who attempt to speak freely outside the FSZ, one warning prior to possible arrest, under Sections I and J.

“We have a right… to assemble wherever our feet will carry us, to speak whatever our tongues propose to speak,” Rev. MacDonald said.

Activists representing Atlanta Gay Pride and the US Social Forum–two events coming up this June–believe the bill is intended to stifle their events, among others. At a major protest planned for the first day of the USSF, thousands from around the world will target Atlanta City Hall over the City’s public housing demolition and mass eviction policies. Now, USSF Conferees may have something more to fight.

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Photograph by Jonathan Springston

An FSZ, “is an area or areas designated and clearly demarcated by the City for use by any person exercising her/his… First Amendment rights to free speech and/or free expression during an Outdoor Event, where the person exercising her/his rights is not authorized to do so by the Outdoor Event Host,” according to Section B.

Who is considered a free speech exerciser in the bill?

Bullhorn users; a person distributing leaflets “to more than 10 people s/he does not know”; a person “preaching to people s/he does not know”; protesters; sign carriers; sign wearers; or someone “conducting a performance including… singing, a play, or a skit, or miming, at least in part… directed toward people s/he does not know,” according to Section B.

Protesters, concerned over the broad and vague language of the ordinance as well as the swiftness and lack of public or legal consultation on the part of the Atlanta City Council, urged all Council Members to vote no on the ordinance on June 12, 2007, next Tuesday.

“This legislation [would] gag our right to free speech,” Sara Totonchi, Public Policy Director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, told Atlanta Progressive News.

“This ordinance would give the City Council the right to [dictate] what and when we can speak,” she said.

“It’s an abuse of power to give the City that much authority to change how people exercise their freedoms of speech or assembly,” Emery Wright of Project South told APN.

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Photograph by Jonathan Springston

The ACLU of Georgia has done research on the legality of this ordinance and will present what’s wrong with the ordinance to the City Council next week.

RJ Thompson, of the Human Rights Network’s National Coordinating Center based in Atlanta, called the ordinance “excessively broad and vague” and said the ordinance would “invoke unreasonable punishments for the free exercise of fundamental human rights… including free speech, opinion, and association.”

Thompson and others said Councilman Maddox’s proposal is not only in violation of the Constitution of the US, but also international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which by the Constitution are also the laws of the US federal government, US States, and US Cities.

“The impact of this would have reverberations that would be felt for years to come, in every demonstration we would plan and any gathering of a group of people,” Totonchi said.

Wright said the City Council was ready to quietly pass the ordinance drawn up by Councilman Jim Maddox on June 4, 2007, before deciding to take a step back.

“What’s scary is, it was about to move through and no one would have even known,” Wright said.

“People have died and their blood was spilled all over this country, Black and White alike, that we might have the right just to speak,” former Councilman Derrick Boazman said in his remarks.

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Photograph by Jonathan Springston

“The greatest thing about America is, the wells of Democracy and justice were dug deep by the founding fathers [who] had the words right, even if they didn’t have the actions right at the time,” Boazman said.

Protesters will again gather June 12, 2007, the day of the vote, to once again make sure the message to the City Council and the Mayor’s Office is clear.

“We’re not only going to go to the Courthouse, we’re going to the streets in protest,” State Sen. Fort said.

“A voiceless people cannot be heard,” Boazman said. “We’re not going to allow you to take away our voice because our voice is so important.”

“We will send a message, even at the ballot box, we will not have our rights violated in any way by the City Council,” Rev. MacDonald said. “If you do not hear us now, you will hear from us later.”

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor of Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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