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Gainesville Resident Fights To Protect Free Speech

The protestors walk along University Avenue. (Michael Stone/WUFT News)
The protestors walk along University Avenue. (Michael Stone/WUFT News)

Jim Funk still remembers when a Gainesville police officer grabbed his arms and escorted him away.

It was an event that shocked and scared Funk but also sparked a discussion about free speech and assembly in Gainesville. His run-in proved to Funk that the city has work to do to ensure free speech to all its citizens.

“That kind of disturbed me that something like that would happen,” Funk said.

Funk’s run-in happened in November 2015 at Artwalk, a monthly event held in downtown Gainesville, while he was gathering petitions for medical marijuana. Funk said he was approached by police officers and the event's coordinator and was told he couldn't gather signatures because he wasn't affiliated with a reserved booth.

Funk said he could gather signatures because the event was on a public street. After debating the issue for a while, police said Funk caused a scene — an accusation Funk denies — and he was carried out. Though Funk believes it was an isolated incident, he still feels he was treated with injustice and that his speech was limited.

“They basically can assault someone in public who’s an old man not doing anything, and they can get away with it,” Funk said.

The discussion about free speech has mainly been led by Gainesville resident James Thompson, an acquaintance of Funk. Shortly after Funk’s incident, Thompson emailed Gainesville City Commissioners and Mayor Lauren Poe. He has since been in touch with members of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs, city commissioners and city lawyers.

Poe said he firmly stands behind free speech in Gainesville, and wants to ensure it remains protected.

"We don't want anything that would create a chilling effect on people practicing their free speech," Poe said.

Thompson received a list of court cases supporting Gainesville’s law from a city lawyer, David Schwartz. In response, Thompson went through each case and pointed out why it didn't apply.

At the time of his initial complaint, the City’s Administrative Procedure 34 said more than two canvassers contacting a single member of the public could be restricted, along with profanity and actions designed to gather crowds. Since then, the city manager updated the procedure to 34-A, which struck down those restrictions. However, a procedure only affects how city staff operates internally, and is not city law.

The current ordinance, which hasn't been updated, still has language limiting more than two canvassers from contacting a single member of the public at any time, Thompson said. It is found in Chapter 19, article 2, under peddlers and canvassers. This means people gathering petitions or passing out information might be unable to do so in a group.

“That law is pretty egregious, and really a bad liability situation in my opinion,” Thompson said. “You basically don’t need to make laws to limit free speech. We have a constitution, we have a set of practices, we have a set of rules. You can’t create free speech zones, that’s unconstitutional.”

Thompson said limiting free speech makes sense when it's a public safety concern, but that doesn’t apply to Gainesville.

“We all think of Gainesville as this perfect liberal open-minded town, but the fact is, you know, when people hold events even in public streets they have grand expectations about what they can do to limit others, and that’s not the case,” Thompson said.

Initially, Thompson planned to let the issue sit until the city took care of other dated laws on the books. The city hired Municipal Code Corporation in December to review existing laws. After the laws are reviewed, a recommendation will be made to the commission. The process should wrap up in two to three months, said Gainesville Clerk of the Commission Kurt Lannon.

Poe said he thinks it is too early to see if the code will be changed. The commission will wait until they receive a recommendation from the group.

"This is why we wanted to hire an outside person, so we wouldn't crowd the view with our own personal biases and assumptions," Poe said.

With the election of President Donald Trump and subsequent national protests, Thompson said free speech in Gainesville needs to be protected now more than ever. He thinks making changes to the laws around assembly cannot wait.

“I thought it’s very important for Gainesville to have this stuff cleared up before anything bad happens, to basically state that Gainesville is going to stand by the First Amendment and stand by its citizens,” Thompson said.

Though Thompson considers himself liberal, he said it doesn't matter what the protests are for.

“That’s exactly the time when we are supposed to protect free speech, is when it makes us uncomfortable and when it is unwelcome[d],” Thompson said. “In fact, it doesn’t matter what these people are petitioning or assembling for, they should be allowed to do what they’re allowed to do with their rights.”

Romy Ellenbogen is a reporter with WUFT News. She can be reached at romye@ufl.edu