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Officials Look to the Plaza as Arena for Free Expression

City officials are trying to find new ground in the debate about use of the Plaza de la Constitucion in the city’s center as a place for free expression.

On Monday, city commissioners stated that they want a new policy for the Plaza that would allow free expression but keep the cheap sunglasses and flea market vendors at bay.  At a workshop on the issue, City Attorney Ron Brown called upon other policies in other tourism-rich cities.  “San Antonio requires permits. They cost $750 each and there are only six of them,” he said. “Los Angeles allows political, philosophical, religious or ideological (objects), and all items created by the vendor. The city doesn’t allow housewares, auto parts, oils, candles, jewelry and toys.”

In the past, street artists and musicians were allowed to perform directly on St. George Street – St. Augustine’s main tourist strip –  but because of complaints from shop owners the performers were banned from the strip and relocated to the Plaza.

The debate has come down to a black-or-white decision: Is everyone allowed to perform in the Plaza or no one?

Some officials like Commissioner Leanna Freeman say that an all-or-nothing policy is the safest legally, but adds that “it’s really lazy. This is an evolving process. We’ve tried all or nothing. Nobody seems to be excited about either one. It’s summer. It’s the perfect time to do it.”

Disagreeing with a proposal to make the Plaza a place for free speech and artists, Mayor Joe Boles said: “The northwest corner of the Plaza – closest to St. George Street – is where the most traffic is and where vendors want to cluster. Everything we have tried has not worked.”

The commission has asked Ron Brown to come up with a sample ordinance within the next few weeks.

Commissioner Don Crichlow said, “Where we’re going is where we’ve gone before. (But) we need to do something pretty quick.”

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