Merritt: Repeal Airport ‘Free Speech’ Zone

Keith MerrittKeith Merritt says there’s one last thing he wants to accomplish in his final month as a Lakeland city commissioner: Repeal the “free speech zone” at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

It’s anything but a free speech zone, he told his fellow commissioners this morning in his next-to-last City Commission meeting. When you restrict speech to a certain area, you restrict it elsewhere, and that’s counter to the American value of freedom of speech, he said.

The free speech zone was established in August 2012 as a safeguard against the possibility of protests disrupting delegates arriving at the airport for the Republican National Convention being held in Tampa later that month.

The ordinance was passed by the City Commission 5-2, with Merritt dissenting, along with Justin Troller. It established an area outside the airport building for protests, requires protestors to contact the airport director when they arrive, and empowers the airport director to suspend protests.

At the time, Merritt tried to have the free speech zone end once the Republican convention was over, but his amendment failed to pass after then-Police Chief Lisa Womack said the protest zone would be needed for future events.

Three years later, some commissioners aren’t sure the restrictions are still needed.

After Merritt brought up the issue today, Troller supported revisiting it, and Commissioner Jim Malless — who wasn’t on the commission in 2012 — asked that city staff “bring back whatever is necessary to rescind the free speech zone … We don’t have a need for it.”

Mayor Howard Wiggs reworded the request, asking that the city manager and city attorney meet with the police chief and let the commission know if a free speech zone is still necessary. “I think the whole thing is — there is no reason, but let’s make sure we know what we’re voting on,” he said.

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Contacted after the meeting, Police Chief Larry Giddens said he wants to talk with the department’s legal counsel and city manager before taking a position on the issue.

As for Merritt, he realizes that he’ll be off the commission before the necessary hearings can be held to repeal the ordinance. “This will be your battle,” he told Troller after the meeting.