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Changes sought on Games rallies

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Officially it costs $100 to exercise your First Amendment right to free speech in Salt Lake City.

That's a problem long overdue for fixing, says city attorney Roger Cutler. And with numerous groups coming to speak freely during the 2002 Olympics, he and Police Chief Rick Dinse are pitching a pair of changes in city regulations.

First, the fee for a permit to hold a rally, demonstration or other assembly on public land should be lowered from $100 to $5, Cutler said. And none of the 12 groups who've been granted permits to assemble in Olympic "free-speech zones" have been asked to pay the $100 anyway.

The $5 would partially cover administrative costs, and that nominal fee would probably encourage groups to apply for permits sooner, said Joshua Ewing, spokesman for Mayor Rocky Anderson. Currently, the city allows people who wait until the last minute before staging a rally to obtain a short-notice permit — which has no fee attached.

Salt Lake officials would prefer that demonstrators apply now, so all can have an idea of the protest landscape come Games time. Yet the mayor and police chief understand that they can't predict everything. Dinse, however, wrote to the City Council to ask for a prohibition on mask- and hood-wearing by protesters.

In other cities where protests turned violent, the leaders were wearing hoods, assistant chief Scott Folsom told the council Tuesday night.

"The experience of many large police departments is that (arresting mask-wearers) is an effective enforcement tool," he said.

When a large protest turns violent, police would home in on mask-wearers, Folsom said.

Local activist groups planning to demonstrate during the Olympics are in favor of the fee change and not so enthused about the proposed ban on face coverings.

Amy Hines of the Citizen Activist Network worries about exactly how police would enforce the ban. Her group plans street theater performances near Rice-Eccles Stadium and the Olympic medals plaza, and those may involve makeup — and if temperatures are in the teens or lower, she wouldn't put it past members of her group to wear ski masks. "(Police) won't be able to distinguish between masks worn to keep warm and so-called 'subversive' masks," Hines said.

A cow costume, complete with bovine hood, will probably be part of protests by the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, said executive director Sean Diener. "It's nonthreatening," he said, adding that peaceful protesters have worn and will wear such disguises.

The City Council, however, liked the idea of banning masks and will consider both proposed ordinances at its meeting next Tuesday.

But Councilwoman Nancy Saxton wasn't so sure about the permit fee policy.

People can't be permitted to protest "willy-nilly" during the Olympics, Saxton said.

Actually they can, responded Cutler, due to that old thing called the U.S. Constitution. "You can't charge people for exercising their right to free speech," the city attorney said, adding that it's the city's job to uphold the First Amendment.

Councilman Eric Jergensen, who took office a month before the start of the Olympics, wanted to know what the city would do to "protect us from a Seattle situation" similar to that of the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings when many protests turned violent.

Neither Cutler nor Folsom could answer. All they can do is try to isolate the leaders of violent groups — who might wear masks, Folsom said. Yet spontaneous expressions of free speech, both men repeated, must be allowed during the Games.

Seeking to lighten things up, Folsom added that if the U.S. hockey team wins a gold medal, "you're going to have a spontaneous demonstration on your hands."


E-mail: durbani@desnews.com