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04.09.08

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What Cost Free Speech?

The Santa Rosa City Council next week considers a proposed $1,500 fee for special events that attract over 3,000 participants, including marches and protest rallies. The current filing fee in Santa Rosa for permits is $75. Critics of the proposal, whose names have been piling up on an online petition, say that a $1,500 post-event fee would strip citizens of the constitutional right to peaceably assemble and would place a cost on free speech.

Pat Fruiht, assistant to the Santa Rosa city manager's office, which is preparing the report in conjunction with the city attorney, explains that, in the eyes of the city, the amount is "really not a fee, it's a cost recovery. What would happen is during the march, we would determine if there are over 3,000 people, and if there are, that would be their contribution toward cost recovery of the services we're providing." Currently the only marches in Santa Rosa that would be subject to the proposed fee are the Immigrant Rights March, held annually on May 1, and the United Farm Workers' César Chávez Parade, both of which attracted over 3,000 participants last year.

Ben Saari, who posted a petition online that had been circulated hard copy at a recent ACLU event, calls the fee "totally asinine." Saari says, "It would make it impossible for people to make their voices publicly heard." He adds that instead of writing the rule into effect shortly after last year's parades, the city council hearing falls conspicuously close to this year's May 1 march, offering a small window of opportunity for the public to oppose the plan. Both Napa and San Rafael currently have no cost-recovery fee in place for large marches.

"We found that larger cities, like L.A., Berkeley and Oakland, either have a nominal cost recovery or no fee at all," Fruiht says, adding that the city can technically charge the full and complete cost of police services and street closures. The organizers of last year's marches were informed of and agreed to the $1,500 fee. "I can't say they're overly happy, because it's going to cost them money," she admits, "but they understand the reasons behind it and felt like it was a reasonable thing to do."

Not everyone agrees. "People aren't going to get fooled again by the tactics of last year," Saari says. The public is invited to attend a hearing on the matter on Tuesday, April 15, at Santa Rosa's City Council Chambers, 100 Santa Rosa Ave., Ste. 10. 4pm. 707.543.3010. The online petition is at [ http://www.petitiononline.com/srfeesp/petition.html ]www.petitiononline.com/srfeesp/petition.html.


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