City considers legislation targeting protesters' tools
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City of Pittsburgh officials are debating whether to legislate away some of the materials protesters use to disrupt gatherings such as the impending G-20 summit, and how to pass such legislation without compromising either their public safety plans or the public's right to know.
Knowing that highly organized protesters use materials like plastic PVC pipe, handcuffs and other locks, wire and cement to link themselves together in tough-to-break formations with names like "sleeping dragon," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration is drafting restrictions on carrying such materials into public gathering places.
Administration officials wouldn't detail the emerging ordinance yesterday, but compared it to special legislation passed prior to the 2006 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which restricted the transport of signs, poles and pipes into certain areas at certain times.
City Council members said something more extensive is brewing. They aren't necessarily against it, but some are wary of suggestions they say have come from the administration that they should sign off without public process.
The public "needs to hear the debate, if for no other reason than to know what is and is not allowed," Councilman Patrick Dowd said yesterday. "If you're talking about changing an ordinance, the public needs to know."
Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the legislation would be public "once it's completed." Council passage can wait until September, he said.
He would not say what materials would be barred from public gathering areas, but said the legislation would be temporary.
The city is preparing -- and bracing -- for the summit that will bring leaders from the world's industrial powerhouses to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Sept. 24-25. Similar gatherings have drawn massive protests, sometimes including handfuls of destructive anarchists and larger numbers of nonviolent but well-organized activists.
Councilwoman Tonya Payne, whose district includes Downtown, said she's "literally afraid" of the summit and accompanying tumult. "I feel like we're just sitting ducks."
Such concerns are driving city officials' interest in legislation to keep people from bringing in weapons, damaging chemicals, and implements commonly used to block streets and buildings.
Mr. Dowd said he'd "have a lot of questions about it." The city can't bar people from carrying guns -- even concealed ones, if they have a permit -- he noted. "How can you restrict somebody from carrying PVC?"
Governments are allowed to restrict protest, but must show "a compelling interest" and make the restrictions as narrow as possible to advance that interest, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
A city code section, finalized four years ago, regulates demonstrations and other special events, requiring pre-approval and payment for police and other public services. That legislation was crafted to end a federal court fight with the ACLU, which argued that earlier policies were capricious.
Council President Doug Shields said that because the current rules stemmed from a court fight, he'd be reluctant to tamper with them.
"I don't feel like getting the city hauled into court for injunctive action over free speech issues," he said.
"People still have rights, regardless of whether we want them here," said Ms. Payne.
Complicating matters, council is on break until Aug. 28. It can pass legislation quickly, but often takes months to hold special meetings and public hearings.
The administration floated the idea of passing protest legislation via interim approval in conversations with council members, said Council Public Safety Chair Bruce Kraus. "I understand the reason they want to introduce this [during council's recess] is so it negates any public process and any public comment," he said. "I said no, absolutely not."
Mr. Dowd said police strategy and tactics can be kept under wraps, even as the public gets a full airing of any proposed code change. He's willing to attend a special meeting of council during the recess, if that's what's needed.
Councilman William Peduto, whose district includes potential protest sites in North Oakland, said the city should look to existing laws, like the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which bars people from creating barriers to wheelchairs in public places.
First Published August 7, 2009 12:00 am