City Council Hears Proposed Changes to Free-Speech Permitting Process

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Black Lives Matter protesters chant as they march through downtown San Antonio in July.

The City Attorney is proposing changes to rules governing protests, parades, and processions that would create an online tool for requesting permits for demonstrations, designate a protest area at the airport, and streamline the permitting process.

The proposals were presented to City Council on Wednesday. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Council members generally voiced support for the changes, and Council likely will consider final ordinance recommendations in January.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) submitted a council consideration request in August to review the City's rules after protesters assembled at San Antonio International Airport in February to demonstrate against President Trump's travel ban from majority-Muslim countries. The demonstrators technically were violating City ordinances by marching without permits and outside approved areas, and many were asked to leave by airport staff. No arrests were made.

Volunteers from the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition, led by organizer Joleen Garcia, brought concerns over the existing parade ordinance to Treviño.

Current rules allow for marches on sidewalks and protests on public property such as parks and outside City Hall without a permit. Protests or marches on city streets require a $75 permit through the San Antonio Police Department. While the City covers the cost – up to $3,000 – of erecting barricades and staffing the route with police officers, the remainder of the cost falls on march organizers.

In the last year, 23 street marches have been permitted, with two requiring costs exceeding $3,000, according to City Attorney Andy Segovia. He recommended that permits be issued free of charge and implementation costs over $3,000 be eliminated.

Segovia also proposed designated free-speech areas at city-owned properties, including the airport, the Convention Center, and the Alamodome. Currently there are two designated protest areas in the airport for a maximum of three people, and none at the Convention Center and Alamodome.

During Segovia's presentation, Council members Cruz Shaw (D2) and Shirley Gonzales (D5) asked if there could be an exception that didn't require permits for low-traffic residential demonstrations.

Hundreds walk in the Pilgrimage from Mission Concepción to Mission San José for World Youth Day San Antonio 2016. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Hundreds walk in the Pilgrimage from Mission Concepción to Mission San José for World Youth Day San Antonio 2016.

"I'm reluctant to require police presence and traffic plans for neighborhood gatherings like posadas," Gonzales said, referring to a Latino holiday tradition of community members going house to house.

The Free Speech Coalition had requested the creation of a liaison outside the police department to organize marches, something that was not part of the City Attorney's recommendations. However, some Council members thought such a liaison would be a good idea.

"It is reasonable to me to assume some folks will not be comfortable interacting with the police depending on the content of their views," Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said. "I side with the Free Speech Coalition on the need for a liaison outside of SAPD, so as to err on the side of the citizen rather than the regulator."

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) (right) listens to Joleen Garcia and the Free Speech Coalition in front of City Hall.

Mitch Hagney for the Rivard Report

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) (right) listens as Joleen Garcia and the Free Speech Coalition protest permit fees for demonstrations in front of City Hall.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) agreed. "I would recommend a one-stop person who knows how to work with parks and the police," she said. "If knowing who to go to is confusing for us internally, it has to be confusing for the public."

After the session, Garcia said having a point of contact for permitting outside the police department is important, because some community members may be wary of interacting with police.

"A liaison outside of [the police] department should be the default for any free speech permits," she said.

Treviño said City officials remain open to hearing how the ordinances can be changed to better serve the public.

"The will and wishes of the people are reflected in the proposed changes, and I believe this process is a model for how the City and community need to work with one another going forward,” he said.

One thought on “City Council Hears Proposed Changes to Free-Speech Permitting Process

  1. Good coverage of an important issue, Mitch.
    I appreciate the enlightened views of the Council members you quoted – especially their points about the importance of having a liaison – someone outside of SAPD – who could help community members negotiate the application process.
    It would be good, also, to have places in each part of the city where people who are not computer-savvy can get help and online computer access – instead of having to go in to a central office – to request a permit (or to submit citizen input on an issue Council is considering, register to attend an event, or other communication that San Antonio should welcome as a sign of community involvement. Not everyone has a “smartphone” or a computer.

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