Vancouver council opts against rules for free speech gatherings

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? Previously: The -Vancouver City Council has been debating whether "expressive activities" -- political rallies or other First Amendment-protected speech, for example -- in groups of larger than 100 should require a permit and insurance. Monday was the fourth time the group has debated the topic as part of a special events ordinance.

? What's new: The council voted 4-3 Monday night against requiring permits, instead instructing staff to create recommendations for notifying the city and for insurance.

? What's next: New language will be drafted by the city's staff and attorneys; the revamped ordinance and recommendations will go before the council again.

? Previously: The -Vancouver City Council has been debating whether “expressive activities” — political rallies or other First Amendment-protected speech, for example — in groups of larger than 100 should require a permit and insurance. Monday was the fourth time the group has debated the topic as part of a special events ordinance.

? What’s new: The council voted 4-3 Monday night against requiring permits, instead instructing staff to create recommendations for notifying the city and for insurance.

? What’s next: New language will be drafted by the city’s staff and attorneys; the revamped ordinance and recommendations will go before the council again.

The best rule for political and other First Amendment protected speech in Vancouver is to have no rules at all, a narrow margin of the city council decided Monday night.

The seemingly unsexy topic of crafting a comprehensive special events ordinance in time for the city’s concert, fireworks and festival season has sparked a feisty debate over free speech between council members and concerned citizens — particularly members of the Tea Party movement.

As part of planning for the ordinance, city staff decided to address “expressive activities” — generally defined as those involving political, religious or other right-to-assemble issues.

The idea was to make sure that city police and fire departments know of a large gathering, and that city staff can also make sure that events aren’t conflicting with one another (that nearly happened last year when a protest march was set to end in Esther Short Park at the same time a wedding was to be held there), city Program and Events Coordinator Cara Cantonwine said.

Under the proposal, for events with more than 100 people expected, organizers would have to get a permit at least seven days in advance, along with insurance. Exceptions would be granted for short notice or an inability to pay for insurance, she said.

But that didn’t sit right with numerous residents and several council members Monday night, who said they fear the new ordinance would quash spontaneous protest.

“Seven days may seem reasonable to many, but the state and U.S. legislators bring forward bills overnight to be voted on in less than a couple of hours,” said Lynn Costello, a Vancouver member of We the People, the group behind Saturday’s large Tea Party rally in Esther Short Park.

Most larger political rallies have been getting permits for their events for years: Saturday’s event had both a $60 permit and insurance, Costello said. It’s the smaller, more organic protests that need protection, she said.

Council divided

In the end, the council voted to send the ordinance back to city staff once again. This time, the ordinance around “expressive activities” will be changed to recommendations that organizers give the city as much prior notification as possible and have insurance.

Mayor Tim Leavitt, along with Councilors Bart Hansen and Jeanne Harris, spoke out in support of the ordinance, but Councilors Larry Smith, Jack Burkman, Jeanne Stewart and Pat Campbell all expressed discomfort in creating rules around free speech.

The controversy has gained enough attention that Leavitt was called onto Portland conservative talk radio host Victoria Taft’s show Monday morning, where he defended the ordinance.

“There is no infringement on free speech,” the mayor said later. “It’s not as big a deal that some of the rhetoric is making it out to be.”

Harris pointed out that for groups of 50 or less, the initial proposal said no permit would be required. For those that are larger, if a short time frame or lack of insurance was an issue, no penalties would be assessed.

Burkman, however, said he was worried that a permit that needed quick turnaround “not get mired if someone is not here to do it.”

Campbell said he was he was worried that the ordinance left too much to city staff interpretation.

“We need to pull the First Amendment-related ordinances out of this and not even go there,” he said, drawing applause from those in the crowd.

How the new recommended guidelines will be crafted will take some work with the city’s legal staff, Cantonwine said after the vote. Large groups that rent public facilities will likely still have to get permits and insurance related to the rental of the space, she said.

Costello praised the council’s actions, saying: “They were very reasonable and very fair. Government tends to overprotect the community; they restrained themselves this time.”