City of Columbus May Start Regulating Information Tables

tablingCurrently, the Columbus City Council is considering Ordinance 1386-2012, proposed on June 14, 2012 and apparently scheduled to be voted on at the meeting this coming Monday, July 16, 2012 (the agenda hasn't been posted on their website at the time of this writing so all I have is this -- UPDATE: Apparently, the vote will not be held on the 16th as the emergency language in the proposed legislation was removed. ).

In a nutshell, this ordinance would create a new chapter in Columbus City Code, Chapter 906, that will fill a legislative hole and will regulate non-commercial structures (bandstands, platforms, podiums, tables, tents, etc...) that are set up on public right-of-ways (streets, sidewalks, other public spaces, etc...). Also, apparently, the Department of Public Service gave a presentation with the attached PowerPoint presentation showing that permits will be for a maximum of 72 hours and will cost $100 (PDF).

Theoretically, when enacted, Chapter 906 would apply to anyone who wants to set up an information table (or other structure) on the sidewalk (or other public right-of-way) for any reason at any time anywhere in Columbus. The penalty for violating the permit or not getting a $100 permit before setting up the structure would be a first degree misdeamenor with a fine of up to $1000 or imprisonment for not more than six (6) months or both.

That's potentially a huge impact, depending upon how the legislation is actually enforced and how the legislation impacts peoples' current activities. My sense is that most activists already assume that they'll need some kind of permission or permit in order to set up a structure (information table) and that doing so without permission carries with it the risk of arrest, fines, etc... So, I'm guessing this proposed legislation will have little impact on most activists. But, are they willing to get a permit that costs $100 in order to set up an information table? I'm not so sure about that.

I first heard about the proposed legislation from Occupy Columbus (1 | 2 | 3). They attempted to mobilize folks to the city council meeting on June 9, 2012. I'm not sure how successful they were, but based on the amount of folks who said they'd attend, it doesn't look like they had a lot of support.

Occupy Columbus is mainly concerned with being able to maintain their tent and stuff currently sitting on the sidewalk outside the Statehouse on High Street.

Obviously, the rest of us are not as concerend about that space. But, Occupy Columbus aside, does this mean we shouldn't be concerned with the broader implications of Chapter 906? Is Chapter 906 a continued erosion of our first amendment constituational rights or is it a way for the city to protect those rights by regulating the space so everyone has fair use? Does Chapter 906 potentially change the way people distribute information or do other actions on Columbus sidewalks? Is this something that's important enough to protest?

On some level, a citywide regulation of sidewalks in this time where Quebec recently enacted Bill 78 and the Occupy movement is still rebounding from the loss of many physical occupation sites, an act like this by Columbus City Council could be seen as an attempt to suppress future actions. The fact that there will be city code that carries with it fines and jail time associated with simple actions like setting up an information table may dissuade many from doing those actions, regardless of how easy it may be to get a permit. But, do many people want to set up an information table on a random public sidewalk or sidewalks in front of the Statehouse or OSU? And out of those who do, will they be willing to pay the $100 fee for the permit?

At the least, Chapter 906 further arms authorities with a way to shut down forms of expression that they disagree with. They may allow one information table in one case but not in another case. The enforcement of Chapter 906 will be up to the particular enforcer at the time, like any law. It also privileges people or organizations who have $100 to spend on the permit. These issues may end up affecting many of us at some point in the very near future.

The question is, what are we going to do about this?

061312 City Code Chapter 906PowerPoint Presentation PAA edits (3) RT EDITS.pdf307.68 KB