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Activists in the streets

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Last week, the Des Moines City Council was supposed to discuss a street-use ordinance that would pass some of the cost of providing police protection cfor public gatherings on to the groups and individuals sponsoring them. The debate was postponed. Though not unlike other ordinances under consideration around the state as cities scramble for new revenue sources, the proposal has the unintended yet unacceptable consequences of potentially restricting the exercise of First Amendment rights.

In theory, the ordinance makes sense. Rather than saddling the entire tax-paying public with the costs of crowd control and police protection at large outdoor gatherings, city officials are taking a more logical, fair approach. If an outdoor festival, parade or other gathering is going to force the police department to divert its officers from their primary responsibilities, asking the sponsors to bear part of the costs isn’t unreasonable.

However, political gatherings clearly are different from motorcycle rallies neighborhood block parties, a fact local activists pointed out and the reason for the council’s delay in considering the ordinance. The activists are especially troubled by wording that potentially could restrict spontaneous gatherings, and they’re working with city officials to come up with language that is more acceptable.

Why should it matter to the business community if a bunch of peaceniks can’t spontaneously demonstrate in the streets? Foremost, businesses are owned and run by people whose First Amendment rights are eroded any time the same rights of others are threatened. In addition, a city that encourages open dialogue, even if it runs counter to traditional wisdom, is ultimately a more livable place than one whose policies restrict it. Think about an open, non-restrictive street-use ordinance as one of the tools in the city’s economic development toolbox.

Gov. Tom Vilsack called last month’s outrage over the federal grand jury subpoenas served on Central Iowa peace activists a public relations nightmare. He was right, in the moment that he uttered it. But something unexpected happened: Word of the U.S. attorney’s investigation and law enforcement officials’ infiltration of peace activists’ planning meetings reverberated around the nation, bringing pressure to bear on those initiating an investigation many people saw as a way to stifle political dissent. The subpoenas were withdrawn, and Iowa enjoyed its glass of lemonade in the national spotlight.

The City Council has a rare chance to advance Des Moines’ reputation as a city that responds when civil liberties are threatened by cleaning up the language in the proposed street-use ordinance. Officials need to hear that message from different corners around the city, from executive offices as well as from the offices and homes where demonstrations are planned.  

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