Stephanie Lopez regularly sets up a table off the entranceway of the Larry R. Jackson Library to sign people up for federally subsidized health insurance plans and gather signatures for petition drives to get prospective state constitutional amendments on the ballot.
She does so inside a 4-foot-wide, 6 1/2-foot-long space aside the door designated for such activities under the city of Lakeland’s Library Petition & Passive Engagement Policy.
Lopez, a field marketer with Fiorella Insurance of Stuart, said last month that no one has ever complained to her about her table, sign-up sheets and petitions. Jackson Library staff said they’ve never had any issues with Lopez or complaints about her presence near the doorway within the designated space for such activities.
In February, Lopez was collecting signatures for Tampa-based Sensible Florida, Inc.’s proposed state constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana for Floridians age 21 or older for personal use.
And while Lopez and library staff have not fielded complaints about Lopez, Commissioner Stephanie Madden maintains she has.
“I have parents and grandparents who don’t like that by the door,” she said Friday during the commission’s agenda study for Monday’s meeting.
During the commission’s Feb. 18 agenda study for its Feb. 21 meeting, Madden said, “There is a lady who set up shop” by the library’s front door with “legalize marijuana petitions” and it “did not seem appropriate right in front of the door.”
She said the table’s placement “makes it look like it is city-sponsored because it is by the front door.”
It was uncertain if the complaints Madden received about Lopez’s signature-gathering being appropriate were about a table on the side of the library’s entranceway — it presents no impediment to foot traffic and complies with the city’s policy — or about Sensible Florida’s petition to legalize marijuana.
In February, City Attorney Palmer Davis said he’d look into what the city could do but cautioned the U.S. Constitution protects free speech activities in the public square and public libraries are considered the public square.
On Friday, Davis said while there is “support for relocating” such “free speech activities” in spaces that aren’t obtrusive, there aren’t many options other than the open parking lot at Jackson Library, unlike the larger Main Library.
Madden said it seems like Lopez is always there with few other issue advocates or petition circulators engaged in free speech activities.
“I do not know if that is open to free speech when one person” is always there, Madden said. “I feel like, do we just ignore what is happening or do we take some action? Could they bring a tent, a microphone? Could you sell cookies? Could you proselyte?”
Under the city’s policy, the free speech spaces are first-come, first-served. The policy also prohibits sound amplification and states “no monies or donations can be collected, solicited, or accepted.”
Under the city’s policy, “petitioning, canvassing and passive citizen engagement initiatives designed to contact, survey, gather signatures, share information, and inform citizens about various topics are only allowed within a designated area outside the library building. No petitioning, canvassing or similar types of citizen engagement initiatives are allowed inside the library building.”
The policy states, “The outdoor space for petitioning, or passive citizen engagement initiatives, shall be designated by the city librarian, or designee. Requests are handled on a first-come, first-served basis, and must not impede access to the building or interfere with access by library customers.”
Davis said the city’s policy was adopted to provide spaces that prevent issue advocates from “walking up on you. This is more passive.”
And the policy must be uniformly applied, he said, regardless how “appropriate’ some may believe it is to solicit signatures for a prospective constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana.
“I want to get it on the record that we are not allowed to pick and choose what messages we like and don’t like. We have to be neutral,” Davis said. “We can change where people set up, but it applies to everybody.”
Commissioners Phillip Walker and Mike Musick wondered about what prompted the complaints.
Lopez’s table “is not in the doorway,” Walker said.
“Where we are here is what I am struggling with a little bit,” Musick said. “I struggle with the idea just because (signature-gatherers and issue advocates) are there, that says the city is behind it. There is a difference between permission and alignment.”
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