Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender VOICES '96 scored a historic victory July 19 in United States District Court in San Diego against the Republican National Committee (RNC) which had sought to move the "free speech zone" for demonstrations during the week of GOP convention.
In a ruling that will dramatically bolster the right to free speech at future political conventions, Federal Judge Rudi Brewster ruled that the City of San Diego acted unconstitutionally when it moved the designated free "speech zone" 300 yards away from the San Diego Convention Center simply to placate the contractual demands of the Republican Party.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties represented VOICES '96, the San Diego County Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Chicano Federation of San Diego County, co-plaintiffs in the suit filed June 20 against the RNC and the City of San Diego.
In February, the San Diego Police Department announced that it had selected a parking lot adjacent to the trolley tracks directly across from the Convention Center as the designated site for the Special Events Area where demonstrations would be held during the Republican National Convention in San Diego, August 12 -15. The site was selected by the Police Department because it met security, logistical and constitutional criteria. The FBI and Secret Service endorsed the selected site.
The RNC has a contractual agreement with the City which allows the RNC authority to approve the security plans for the convention. In what the court determined was a partisan political endeavor to move protests as far away as possible from the convention, the RNC proposed that the Special Events Area be relocated a parking lot third of a mile south further south. In an attempted compromise, the City moved the "free speech zone" to a lot three full city blocks away from the originally designated site .
At a June 20 press conference announcing the filing of the suit, Jordan Budd, Managing Attorney for the ACLU affiliate cited previous federal court cases that have determined that protesters must be allowed within eyesight and earshot of convention delegates. Budd noted, "The national convention of a major political party is one of the greatest moments in the political life of our nation. If the First Amendment means anything, it should mean that people may stand close enough to such an event to be seen and heard."
Speaking immediately after the July 19 court hearing, Budd stated, "Today Judge Brewster ruled that the RNC's veto of the Police Department's designated speech venue was an unconstitutional act of censorship, and struck it down. The judge strongly endorsed the First Amendment principle of 'scrupulous neutrality' in the regulation of free speech, and ruled that City of San Diego could not give the RNC the right to relegate its critics to a more distant venue, simply to divert attention from their message."
Tony Valenzuela, Co-Chair of VOICES '96 was elated at the decision. "This is a victory for the First Amendment," proclaimed Valenzuela. "Groups exercising their rights to free speech within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities felt we could not effectively convey our message of justice and equality from the site that the City and the RNC had selected. This time around, the RNC has not been successful in censoring differing points of view."
The judge left the determination of the actual demonstration site to the City of San Diego. "Now that the decision will be placed in the hands of the City," Valenzuela observed, "we are confident that they will make the best decision that will meet the constitutional requirement of free speech for all interested groups. Considering that the site at 4th Avenue and K Street is the only other site that has been considered and approved for security reasons by the San Diego Police Department, the FBI and the Secret Service, it seems as if the City will once again propose that site." VOICES '96 is the LGBT Response to Religious Political Extremism within the Republican Party
LGBT VOICES '96 (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Voters Organized in Coalition for the Elections) is a San Diego-based grass roots coalition of local and national organizations coordinating political action, educational forums, and cultural arts prior to and during the Republican National Convention. Organizations involved in the coalition, in addition to approximately 20 local groups, are the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), National Latino Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO) and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center.
VOICES '96 has adopted a platform which identifies five issues that will be the focus of the coalition's activities: (1) Legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, (2) Recognition of the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual and transgender families including the right to adoption, child custody, foster parenting, and the freedom to marry, (3) Social acknowledgment and condemnation of anti-gay prejudice, intolerance and violence based on sexual orientation; (4) Increased funding for research and quality, accessible health care for people with AIDS/HIV, breast cancer and other serious diseases; (5) School- and community-based support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
In addition, VOICES '96 has also adopted a Statement of Solidarity with communities fighting to: keep Affirmative Action; preserve federal assistance programs as entitlements; end the scapegoating of immigrants as the cause of our economic woes and the LGBT communities as a threat to "family values"; uphold the separation of church and state; and protect a woman's right to choose.. A Week of Activities Planned
The coalition has secured permits for four events at the designated "free speech zone." On Monday evening, August 12, the opening night of the convention, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rally will be held at the "free speech zone" from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m., preceded by a march from nearby Pantoja Park (north side of G Street, between Columbia Street and India Street). Planned speakers include Melinda Paras, Executive Director, NGLTF; Candace Gingrich, spokesperson for the HRC; Donna Red Wing, National Director of Community Affairs for GLAAD; and Urvashi Vaid, Former NGLTF Executive Director and author of "Virtual Equality." In addition the Flirtations will be performing a special tribute to Michael Callen, a former member of the singing group who died of AIDS.
On Tuesday evening, an AIDS rally is planned at the site from 6:30 - 9:30 p.m., again with a pre-march from Pantoja Park. Planned speakers include Derek Hodel, Public Policy Director, Gay Men's Health Crisis; Joe Zuniga of the AIDS Action Council; Elizabeth Birch, HRC Executive Director, and Sean Sasser of the HRC. The Flirtations will have an encore performance Tuesday.
Wednesday afternoon, from 12:45 - 1:45 p.m., a Queer Youth SpeakOut will be held in the "free speech zone." Among those invited to speak is Kelli Peterson, who founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at a Salt Lake City high school, setting off a statewide move to ban gay clubs from schools.
On the closing night of the convention, VOICES '96 will be part of a the "Voices for Justice Coalition March and Rally" which will protest against the politics of scapegoating from religious political extremists within the Republican Party. Sponsoring organizations include VOICES '96, San Diego County Chapter of NOW, the Chicano Federation, the ACLU, the San Diego County Democratic Party, the Green Party Council, the Poor People's Party, the Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Handgun Control, and others. Melinda Paras, NGLTF Executive Director, will be addressing LGBT issues. Other speakers will address issues such as the rights of organized labor, reproductive choice, Affirmative Action and the California Civil Rights Initiative (which would abolish Affirmative Action programs in state programs, agencies and institutions). Following a march, the rally be held at the "free speech zone" site from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Other VOICES '96 events include a Town Hall Meeting, 6:00 p.m. Sunday, August 11 at the Spreckels Masonic Lodge (3858 Front Street at First Avenue). Urvashi Vaid will moderate a critical dialogue with some of the movement's most well known and respected leaders and community members around issues such as civil rights, AIDS, coming out, violence and harassment, gay/lesbian family issues, and youth suicide.
Wednesday afternoon, from 6:00 - 9:00 p.m., at the Cypress Room, 3665 Park Boulevard, (catered by California Cuisine) an "Honoring Our Voices" fund raising reception will be held to honor the many of the movement leaders who will be in town for the convention. Later that evening, starting at 9:00 p.m. a "Politics of Dancing Party" will be held at Rich's, a popular dance club located at 1051 University Avenue in the Hillcrest area of San Diego.
Hotel and motel rooms will be scarce during the convention. Limited community housing will be available on a first-come, first served basis. Call (619) 296-1179 for more information. "Men on Vacation" has secured a block of hotel rooms for VOICES '96, with prices starting at $104 per night. To make a reservation call (800) 854-7688.
LGBT VOICES '96 can be contacted at LGBTVOICES@aol.com or at their home page.