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Our Opinion: Festival permits must respect people’s rights

Freedom comes with a nuisance factor.

Some people don’t like being approached, or hassled, at public events. For them, protesters and petitioners can be a pain.

But attempts to vanquish or silence them risk undermining our precious First Amendment freedoms.

We’re reminded of the need to accommodate petitioners as the Jefferson City Council discusses reviving an ordinance creating festival districts.

Council discussion thus far has focused on details — including duration, location and designation issues — but lost in the clatter is a fundamental question: Who has what authority?

The city recently road-tested the concept of a festival district, which essentially lifts the prohibition of consumption of alcoholic beverages on city streets within a designated area for a specific duration.

During the effective period of the now-expired ordinance, special events permits were obtained for two authorized festival districts, one downtown and another in the Dunklin Street area.

The districts were used during each Thursday Night Live event held during June in the downtown and once at a “Blues, Brews and Brauts” event on Dunklin Street.

Festival-district events largely were successful. They were well-attended, generally commended and primarily trouble-free.

A problem we perceived was an infringement of First Amendment rights when pro-life and pro-choice petition gatherers were asked to leave the festival district.

Our inquiries revealed confusion among city officials and event organizers about who had what authority. Were city streets within the district essentially private property controlled by event organizers during the event? By what authority did event organizers ask petitioners to vacate the area?

The ordinance language is clear. It reads: “All public streets shall be closed.”

We understand that to mean streets are closed, similar to a parade; they are not privatized. City police, not private security, patrolled festival districts.

The ordinance continued: “The Applicant may prohibit the sale of food or beverages on the public streets except by persons authorized by the Applicant.” With the exception of stipulations on alcohol consumption, no other prohibitions were authorized.

The language of the ordinance provisions may not need to be changed, but either the application or permitting process must specify the extent of a permit holder’s authority.

In addition, we believe that authority must not infringe on rights guaranteed by our Constitution’s First Amendment.

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