News Index > Sortable News 10/06 - now > February 2007
Free Speech is an idea Utah is still getting used to
Animal-rights and progressive activists find free speech is an idea Utah is still getting used to.
In the United States, anyone can gather a handful of friends, stand on the sidewalk and protest�in theory, at least.
In fact, many Utah cities and counties have laws against doing just that. Carry out a public protest, and you and your friends may be shunted away by big men carrying guns.
Nowadays, protesters are spending as much time in the courts as on the streets. While they often win their cases, those victories don�t accumulate. Their next protest is just as likely to get busted.
Among the hardest pressed are activists in the Utah Animal Rights Coalition. Its members protest the circus. They are against fur. They have even protested the Utah Gay Rodeo. But if you�ve been to the circus recently or shopped a fur store in Park City, it�s likely you haven�t heard their message. That�s because protesters were rounded up long before you got there.
"They are told, �Go four blocks away, around the corner and down the street, and put out your message there,�" said Brian Barnard, an attorney representing the coalition in two lawsuits challenging city and county restrictions on protesting.
In many Utah cities, and at all Salt Lake County facilities, protests are allowed only after giving the government notice�a month ahead of time in the case of Salt Lake County�and only after getting government permission in the form of a permit.
If you get a permit, there is often a catch. Governments increasingly have passed laws saying protests are only allowed in "protest zones" where protesters are caged, like the animals they seek to protect, far from anyone they want to persuade.
Animal rights activists faced one such law last month in Park City when they tried to protest a Main Street fur store during the Sundance Film Festival.
The coalition is now suing Park City over the protest-zone law. In a separate lawsuit, the group is suing Salt Lake County and South Jordan over a thwarted attempt to picket a February circus held at the county-owned Equestrian Park and Events Center.
They were shut down for not having a permit. Salt Lake County rules require permit applications 30 days in advance but, on paper, make an exception for protests. South Jordan requires that protesters give the city at least 12 hours notice.
"I said I had constitutional right," recalled Rob Hutton, who was at the circus protest and is a plaintiff in the case against Salt Lake County. "The response from the police officers was, �We have an ordinance against that.� I can�t stop laughing about that: the suggestion that a local ordinance supersedes the U.S. Constitution."
Barnard said governments can regulate where and when protest happens only with a good reason, and there is seldom a good reason to require advance notice for a handful of malcontents with signs. The only constitutional reason is if a city needs time to prepare for mass demonstrations. "But for cities like South Jordan or Park City to say everybody has got to have a permit for every demonstration is an unconstitutional impediment for free speech," he said.
When animal-rights protesters tried to picket the Alaska Fur Gallery on Park City�s Main Street, they ran up against a city ordinance passed especially for the film festival stating that any protest of more than five people could take place only in a snow-filled park located two blocks away from Park City�s Old Town.
John Holliday, Park City assistant attorney, said the city�s rules for protests during Sundance are intended to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians and streets clear for emergency vehicles. Protesters, even if small in number, cause problems by drawing attention and causing passersby to stop.
He said even though the city set up an official protest zone in the park, city officials tried to work with protest groups who wanted to be closer to Sundance activities. For example, Holliday said city officials negotiated with Sundance to allow an anti-war protest on a section of Main Street reserved for a festival concert later the same evening. The animal-rights group was offered space for a protest in a Main Street alley next to a fur shop, he said.
Barnard said protest zones are allowed only in exceptional circumstances, such as a presidential inauguration, where there is a real threat of violence. Sundance doesn�t count. Neither does Taylorsville Dayzz.
Last year, the animal-rights coalition sued Taylorsville when the city mayor created a protest zone for the annual community celebration. A judge intervened, ordering that protesters be allowed to mix with the crowd; the city settled for $15,000.
But such victories don�t last long.
The coalition has already sued once to stop Salt Lake County from demanding 30 days� notice and a permit before protests on county property, noted Hutton. Two years ago, security guards chased anti-fur protesters from the county operated Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, saying protests weren�t allowed within one block.
The county settled the lawsuit that followed with an agreement to allow protest. Hutton believed the agreement applied to all county facilities. Two years later, activists were chased away from the county equestrian facility.
Still, it appears Salt Lake County is learning. Barnard said county employees initially told the anti-circus protesters they could have their protest as long as they didn�t block the sidewalk but later deferred to South Jordan police.
The same may be true at Utah�s Legislature. Last year, Utah legislators asked highway patrol troopers to eject activists from the state capitol complex, where political speech, in theory, should be freest.
Advocates for poor people and the disabled had angered some lawmakers during a debate about Medicaid coverage for dental treatment. Some brandished pictures of rotting teeth. Others handed out "certificates of cowardice" to lawmakers.
This year�s attempt to ban such citizen petitioning in many areas of Capitol Hill, where lawmakers congregate, was scrapped after a successful lawsuit from citizen lobbying groups in favor of allowing largely unfettered public access�at least on paper.
Gena Edvalson, executive director of the Utah Progressive Network, said public protest is an idea state officials are still getting used to.
This legislative session, two young people with the network�s student and youth council showed up outside a committee room with signs, including one that read, "Racists Should Not Be Legislators."
Debate ensued about where in the building the sign holders were allowed to stand and whether or not they needed a permit.
"A highway patrolman in uniform came up and asked, �Do you have a right to be here?�" Edvalson recalled.
But, in the end�unlike last year�the petitioners weren�t kicked out.
"They were a little nervous and overreacting, but in the end, they did not make them move," Edvalson said. "I think they are trying to be really careful because they did get sued."