City council to vote on free speech gatherings

Proposed ordinance would allow events on public space without requiring advance notice

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Raise your bullhorns, activists — a new special events ordinance before the Vancouver City Council tonight would allow any number of protestors, from 50 to 5,000, to gather at any public space without letting police, fire or neighbors know about it beforehand.

The ordinance is the result of at least seven council meetings to discuss the issue and three reworkings of its language. Should it pass, it may be the most liberal free speech gathering policy in the state.

Some, including a number of local Tea Party members and a narrow majority of the city council, call it a triumph of the First Amendment.

Others, including the mayor and two council members, say it’s a recipe for disaster.

“This ordinance is watered down to a point to where, at least this section itself, is barely worth the paper it’s printed on,” said a clearly irritated Mayor Tim Leavitt at the June 14 city council meeting as he cast a minority vote against the measure.

Citizen and politician passions were first stirred several months ago, when city staff presented a new comprehensive special-events ordinance that would cover policy and procedure for all city events, including parades, block parties and other large gatherings. The ordinance included a clause regarding “expressive activities” — generally defined as those involving political, religious or other right-to-assemble issues.

Based on language used in other Washington cities, Vancouver was going to require that for events with more than 100 people, 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.

Order vs. freedom

Enter right-wing KPAM radio host Victoria Taft and We the People, a local Tea Party group.

Requiring any notice, they said, would take away the organic nature of political assembly and place permission to protest in the hands of city bureaucrats.

“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, told the council in April.

Leavitt was called onto Taft’s show in April, where he defended requiring notice.

He argued that police, fire and other public entities needed time to plan for covering such protests, and that the city needed to avoid other possible planning conflicts.

But several councilors joined in Taft’s concerns, saying they did not want to risk lawsuits or other conflicts by placing any restrictions on free speech.

“They’re split because of that whole balance between wanting to protect public health and safety, and right-to-assemble and free speech activities, and at what level do they want to regulate them?” Vancouver Program and Events Coordinator Cara Cantonwine said.

After lengthy debate at the April meeting, councilors Jeanne Stewart, Larry Smith, Pat Campbell and Jack Burkman voted down any requirements, (with Leavitt and Councilors Jeanne Harris and Bart Hansen supported requiring a permit), sending the ordinance back to city staff.

‘May,’ not ‘shall’

Enter the term “may.” All references about notifying the city prior to an expressive activity now include the term, “may,” instead of “shall,” making it all voluntary.

“All we can do is offer advice,” Cantonwine said.

Last week, at the first reading of the new pared-down ordinance, Harris voiced her displeasure: “We are not taking away anyone’s right for expressive activity — we just simply want a heads-up.”

Leavitt, along with saying that the ordinance wasn’t worth the paper it was on, warned residents they may see unintended consequences.

“You will have no notice,” he said. “There could be a big function in front of your home, and we will not be able to let you know that if these folks who plan the event don’t contact the city.”

Burkman, however, said the voluntary phrasing was just what the majority of the council was looking for.

“It’s an educational program,” he said. “We’re communicating this is education we’re looking for, and it’s in a non-threatening and non-enforceable way.”

Stewart said the city was “prudent in not attaching restrictions” on free speech.

Some codes and laws may still apply to free speech gatherings. For example, should a group at Esther Short Park need to use the city’s electricity or water, or drive a vehicle into the park, they would have to pay for park rental, allowing for notification before the event, Cantonwine said.

Any group that blocks streets or intersections, or commits other infractions or crimes, will still fall under city law, she said.

The city council’s second reading, public hearing and what looks to be final vote on the issue is set for 7 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 210 E. 13th St.

Cantonwine said she hopes the seventh meeting is a charm.

“At this point, I just hope it passes,” she said. “We need regulation for the special events that aren’t expressive activities. We really need some sort of objective criteria when dealing with those permitting processes.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.