Temporary ordinance in Florida bans items used by journalists

Emily Miller | Newsgathering | News | July 30, 2012

Media lawyers are concerned about a temporary ordinance that, among other things, bans certain items, such as gas masks, during the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

“One of the main things the ordinance does is it has some items that are prohibited, and some of those items are everyday things for reporters or things that are used by reporters at events like this,” lawyer Paul McAdoo said. “If reporters are covering the protests within the event zone and things go poorly and police use tear gas, reporters can’t protect themselves.”

Attorney Carol LoCicero said that although the ordinance implements other rules that regulate protesters, there is not much concern for journalists other than with the listing of prohibited items.

“There are technical aspects that might impact journalists, but I don’t think it’s likely to practically impact how they do their jobs,” she said.

LoCicero and McAdoo are colleagues at the law firm of Thomas & LoCicero in Tampa, which will be running the Reporters Committee's hotline for journalists during the convention.

McAdoo said the media used gas masks in Minnesota while covering protests outside the 2008 Republican National Convention and that such use is common for journalists covering these events.

However, the gas mask ban does not apply to law enforcement personnel, government employees and “licensed medical professionals in the performance of their medical duties.” Also exempt are individuals who are -- or whose employer is -- “properly licensed to do business in Hillsborough County” so long as the possession of gas masks “is in the normal course of the person’s licensed business or employment with said business.”

The ordinance also prohibits “rope, chain, cable, strapping, wire … or any material” longer than 6 feet. McAdoo noted that cabling of satellite trucks used by reporters fits this description. He added that the Tampa ordinance bans monopods, bipods and tripods as well.

City Attorney for Tampa James Shimberg Jr. said the city did a lot of research prior to adopting the ordinance in May and determined that the ordinance is “the best way for us to balance First Amendment rights with public safety needs.”

According to Shimberg, the prohibited items are items that could potentially be used as weapons or have been used as weapons at similar events in the past.

“Tear gas is something used before using additional force, and if some have gas masks and some don’t have masks, it is less successful,” Shimberg said. “The police chief and the police force said they are not going to be unreasonable.”

Shimberg said he does not believe the ordinance will be an issue for journalists.

"Journalists will be treated like anyone else,” he said. “If they’re not breaking the law, they have nothing to worry about.”

In addition to setting limits on what items can be carried, the ordinance provides for an event zone, which according to Shimberg, is based on similar geography in St. Paul, Minn. There will also be a public viewing area that will be open throughout the entire convention.

Shimberg said while the event zone and the public viewing area are available to journalists, they are not required to remain within these areas.

“We’re trying to be as welcoming and as open as possible,” he said. “The only place journalists are not able to go is inside the Secret Service perimeter unless they have media credentials.”

Shimberg said the city is also looking to set up an area for journalists adjacent to the public viewing area.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Police, Protesters and the Press