City Council Approves Changes to March and Protest Rules

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Protestors march down Houston Street as San Antonio Police escorts the crowd.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Police escort Dakota Access Pipeline protesters down Houston Street during a protest on Nov. 15, 2016.

The San Antonio City Council on Thursday unanimously approved changes to city codes that regulate protests, parades, and processions. The new language removes application fees for not-for-profit events, makes adjustments to the process of acquiring permits, and designates additional areas of public space for demonstrations.

"Today the City of San Antonio is making progress," said Joleen Garcia, an organizer with the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition, which spearheaded the changes. "We're going to lead this county in raising the public discourse and making sure that people have their First Amendment rights."

Garcia and other group volunteers approached Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) after demonstrators were asked to leave the San Antonio International Airport while protesting President Donald Trump's travel ban from majority-Muslim countries last year. They were marching without permits and outside approved public protest areas. Treviño asked City staff to start looking into changing those rules shortly after.

"The stakeholder input from all sides has been vital in crafting amendments which remove permitting costs for free speech activities like protests while providing more opportunities for engagement between citizens and their local government," Treviño said in a statement. "The current political and social climate has elicited strong responses across America. I am proud that the policy this council put forth today gives all parts of our community the opportunity to exercise their First Amendment right."

The San Antonio Police Department has been in charge application and permitting processes for protests and marches on city streets, but Free Speech Coalition members said approaching the police can be intimidating for some organizers. A new office within the Center City Development and Operations department will now take on those duties. The $75 application fee will now be waived except for commercial or non-First Amendment processions.

"City Hall belongs to the public and everyone has a seat at the table,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. "This ordinance will make it easier and more affordable for San Antonians to make their voices heard and is a perfect example of how the community and the City can come together."

City Attorney Andy Segovia also told Council members that a new website intended to streamline the application process could be online by March 13. It will include information on how to obtain and submit applications for events.

Marches or demonstrations on public property such as sidewalks, parks, and in front of City Hall do not require a permit.

City staff identified several spaces for demonstrations at publicly owned-sites such as the airport, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and the Alamodome. People can now also apply to protest in expanded zones at the airport.

All Council members voiced their support for the ordinance changes, but recognized that work needs to be done to improve the relationship and system of accountability between community activists and the police department.

Garcia agreed, but saw an overall victory for first amendment advocates in the changes.

"We need the public to use their rights," Garcia said. "When you use your rights it's harder for them to take them away."

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