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Protesters may get charged for free speech

Julio Ochoa / naplesnews.com | April 19 2006

Lee County commissioners are expected today to discuss whether to make organizers of last week's protest march pay for additional costs the county incurred, but they may be wasting their time.

The county has no legal standing to charge organizers anything based on rulings from similar court battles, said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Governments don't tax the exercise of constitutional freedoms, that's why we have municipal budgets and publicly funded police departments," Simon said. "People don't pay to exercise their First Amendment rights, that is contradictory to how the Constitution works."

More than 75,000 people marched on downtown Fort Myers to protest proposed immigration reform measures in Congress — the largest public rally in Lee County history.

The county's attorney sent a letter to the organizers of the march before the event stating that they may have to pay for some expenses associated with the march.

The county manager's office is still tabulating the costs, but officials have said that the total could reach $500,000.

Final figures may not be available until next week, said Bill Hammond, deputy county administrator.

County staff is asking commissioners for some direction on how to proceed, Hammond said.

Additional costs include work by the county department of transportation to close down roads along the route and overtime paid to employees, including the Lee County Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office also spent more than $300,000 on riot gear, which can be used in the future.

The county's emergency operations center provided water, ice meals and 20 portable bathrooms, said Michael Bridges, a spokesman for the center.

But it's not likely that Lee County will recoup any of those costs, Simon said.

Many courts, including the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta and the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that governments cannot charge people for exercising their constitutional rights.

Some of the cases regarded overtime costs police departments incurred. If Lee commissioners decide to charge organizers for the Sheriff's Office's riot gear they're facing a tougher battle, Simon said.

"That is even more outrageous than trying to sock it to demonstrators for overtime," he said. "That is a capital expense that will be in use far beyond the time that the demonstration it was used for lasted."

If the county pursues legal action, the ACLU would be happy to represent the organizers of the march, he said.

But county commissioners don't appear to be heading in that direction.

It may not be worth the trouble to ask for reimbursement, said Commissioner Bob Janes.

"I suspect that is not about to happen," Janes said. "There is no money anyway. What are we going to do, sue them?"

Commissioner John Albion said he thinks people should be responsible for the costs they incur, but doubts the county will be able to get any money back.

Instead, staff should work with organizers to make sure that next time, the process is handled much better up front, Albion said.

Had organizers planned further in advance for the event, the county's costs wouldn't have been as high, said county attorney David Owen.

"Typically, we don't have 75,000 people on our streets with 48 hours notice," Owen said. "This was a very serious event and it came out well for everyone, but on the same token, it wasn't a Fourth of July event. It was a highly visible, highly debated event."

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