Clearwater council right to leave Scientology protests alone

Tampa Tribune/May 15, 2008

The Clearwater City Council took mere seconds Tuesday to deliver a powerful message: that people have the right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, and the city won't even consider trying to tread on that right.

Thirty-four downtown merchants and two residents signed a petition calling for the city government to take action against Anonymous, a loosely organized, Internet-based group that has been conducting worldwide protests against the Church of Scientology for months. Since the first of the year, the group has led four weekend protests in downtown Clearwater, where the Church of Scientology has its spiritual headquarters and a massive presence. Another protest is planned for June 14.

The protests in Clearwater have been peaceful, without a single arrest, but they do look a bit bizarre. The protesters wear masks or bandannas to cover their faces because they believe the Church of Scientology will target them if they are recognizable. It is not an idle fear, since in the past the church has been accused of using private investigators to follow critics or contacting their employers.

Downtown Clearwater merchants who signed the petition told the St. Petersburg Times that the protests are keeping away customers and the masked protesters look scary to children. The Church of Scientology also has objected to the tenor of the protests, accusing Anonymous of using hate speech — signs carried by protesters often refer to Scientology as a cult or a scam — and claiming that Anonymous members have phoned in death threats to the church and attacked the church's computer systems.

However, Clearwater police have closely monitored the Anonymous protests, and they have seen no reason to arrest or cite the protesters.

Anonymous organizers say they have not blocked customers from entering downtown businesses and that no one has any reason to fear the protesters, who generally have numbered from 50 to about 200 — nowhere near the estimated 3,000 Scientologists who, in 1997, marched around downtown in a surprise mass demonstration against the Clearwater Police Department and the St. Petersburg Times. At least Anonymous provides plenty of advance notice of its demonstrations.

Scientologists had the right to speak their minds on the streets of Clearwater in 1997. And Anonymous has the right to do so in 2008. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and peaceably assemble, and it declares that government may make no laws abridging those rights.

While the tactics of Anonymous members or supporters have not always been laudatory in other parts of the world, in Clearwater, they have done nothing to warrant government intervention. They may express views that Scientologists find objectionable, but Scientology expresses views that others object to as well. Both sides have the right to express their viewpoints peacefully.

The City Council's response to the merchants' petition was exactly right.

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